Every once in a while I get a letter like this one from John Evans: “You drive a Bentley? How can you preach to starving artists when obviously you must come from old money.”
This is what I wrote to John: “I’ve never inherited or borrowed a cent from my family. My parents are still alive. I bought the Bentley while travelling in England and paid for it mostly with 8″ x 10″s. For a while I called it my 8 x 10. Everything material that I possess was paid for with my art. I’ve gained other non-material things as well — like joy and the confidence that my happiness is in my hands. Come to think of it, this sort of thing, while crass on the surface, might be a good subject for a letter. What do you think?” John wrote back and said, “Go ahead.”
Fact is that there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of subscribers to this letter who could buy themselves a Bentley if they wished. Many artists will have even more expensive and foolish ways to express their individuality and invest their art incomes. Several of my artist friends have Bentleys. We might have a car club out of it. What I’ve noticed about these friends are the following:
We have taken the trouble to fall in love with our art, dust it off and shine it up every day, go the extra mile to do what’s necessary to achieve quality, and drive ourselves regularly.
We have taught ourselves to be quick and efficient. A doctor who takes three weeks to remove an appendix would also starve.
We have given ourselves permission to be rewarded for the efforts that give us joy. Connecting the art passion to other passions and dreams completes the circle and makes the effort even more worth while.
We have not sold out. We are not hacks or charlatans. We know that quality is always in style. We respect our calling. We look to the all-time greats. As artists we try to build “classics.”
What we have inherited from our parents is the knowledge that we can be sufficient unto ourselves.
PS: “Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, intelligent direction and skillful execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives.” (William A. Foster)
Esoterica: There are times at shows and meets when I look at my Bentley and ask, “Could it have been designed any better? Was there a high point in auto design that will never again be achieved? Have modern cars fallen prey to fashion and expediency? Could the same be true in art?”
The following are selected correspondence arising from the above and other letters. Thanks for writing.
Over the top
by Faith Puelston, Wetter, Germany
How fortunate you are to have got it all right. How fortunate to have the right amount of talent and the ability to fulfill yourself, give joy to yourself and others, mingle with other great artists, buy Bentleys, boats, boots or anything else you covet after finding buyers for all your 8″x 10″ originals. You are proud of your achievements, and rightly so. But if sloth (under-achieving?) — and this is what you are subliminally assuming/accusing us less erudite, less successful, less fortunate of — is a vice, then so is smugness, don’t you agree? Many of us think we are lucky that things are as good as they are. Many of us do work hard to blot out or overcome the negative influences on our lives, material or otherwise, or to compensate for missing elements, such as love or health or companionship, or just merely to survive. Some of us succeed. Many don’t. We cannot all boast that we got it right, because we didn’t. But not necessarily for want of trying. I am sure that all your readers and correspondents want you to continue to be rich, happy, successful, and healthy enough to enjoy the fruits of your labors. Of course we benefit in one way or another from your inspiration and the many comments made by the contributors to your clickbacks. Will mine be the only negative reaction? It won’t matter to you, I’m sure, because you are above or at least beyond it all, to judge from your writings, but it does matter in the microcosmos of human relationships, even over the macrocosmic Internet. I truly wish you continuing success, health, wealth, and sublime happiness, but also the wisdom and humility to respect the legitimacy of failure in all its many disguises. Why? Because your own success thrives on the contrast with the less impressive efforts of others. I have not written these lines out of resentment or bitterness, but because I feel you went over the top this time.
In their shoes
by Cyril Satorsky (fellow artist, neither sick nor poor, Volvo, no Bentley)
I find your self-congratulatory remarks about your car and how “Quality will be rewarded” somewhat glib. Just a brief peek into history will reveal the many artists in all fields who have lived in poverty and have not been able to enjoy the rewards of their labors in their own lifetimes. The obvious case is Vincent Van Gogh who wanted to paint pictures that the masses would enjoy, but sold only one painting in his dedicated lifetime. It is an irony that he is now probably the most popular of all painters in history, with his work making big bucks by everyone who merchandizes his work. Another great is Bela Bartok whose genius was recognized mainly by his close friends. His reward was to die sick, poor and unknown. And how about Nicolas Tesla, who was cheated of his rewards by Thomas Edison who presumably knew where the “extra” mile was.
by Jennifer Garant
Gee…… When you start out as an artist and are struggling, you get hit with, “You just do not want to work or you are lazy — get your head out of the clouds — no one can make a living painting.” In general a ton of criticism. Then you persevere and follow your passion, believe in yourself when others do not, often times for years, maybe decades, then when you have financial abundance you must listen to the sniveling of others stating that you have sold out or inherited your earnings…… yeesh…….. the life of an artist is difficult! Abundance in life, love, creation and finance is not a sin! John needs to quit complaining and get busy shooting for the moon.
Get good, then smart
by Kitty Wallis
I’ve been making my livelihood with my paintings from the age of 18. I’ve had no other income, unless you count my inheritance of $1200 when I was 32. I have often told those who ask me how a person makes money at art; “First you get good, then you get smart.” The myth of financially inept artists is one of those legends that grows with a life of its own. Artists who want to spend their lives developing their work need to find a way to support themselves with their work. And it needs to be the real thing. Diverting our energies to do fake art in order to make a living is no more to the point than working at the average day job.
by Ortrud Tyler, North Carolina, USA
For my money I can buy great art books, videos, go to some place with great museum, buy incredibly neat shoes not to speak of materials which in turn produce more art. Everybody paints for his or her own reasons, and while we have the right to be suspicious of some people’s motives, we really don’t have the right to push them into our own way of thinking. In the end the results speak for themselves and for their creators. Real life hardly ever is the way we would like it to be. Here is a good wish: get into the Bentley and go for a spin, if for no other reason than to prove that artists can do it and deserve it.
by Michael Nachoff
I believe that ‘suffering for one’s art’ is one of the greatest myths surrounding the creative process. While a lot of financially well-off people can lose their perspective on what’s important in life, I happen to know some wealthy people who maintain healthy and happy lives by respecting where they’ve come from. How hard they’ve had to apply themselves in their respective careers. At the end of the day they realize that it’s not the car in their driveways that reflect their true substance.
Wanting to be rich
by Elsha Leventis, Princeton, MA, USA
Hear! Hear! AND even if you had inherited a fortune from a relative or won the lottery, would that take away from your art and who you are? One of the most insidious forms of discrimination in our society is against the rich. A paradox really, as just about everyone I know wants to BE rich, preferably without doing any of the work to become so. Destitution is not a pre-requisite to success as an artist in any medium. Many great artists have come from moneyed backgrounds, including Group of Seven painter Lawren Harris, who helped support his fellow artists and contributed three-quarters of the financing for the studio they all worked in. Whether rich or poor, artists are people who show up for their craft and do their best.
by Lesley Ann Hartman, Benfleet, Essex, UK
What interested me in your last letter was not so much the fact that you can make money enough for a Bentley… but how you track down your market well enough to be able to do this. I have spent my ‘apprenticeship’ working at my art, and am confident that the quality is there now. But how do you find the market without going down the road of Galleries and Dealers, who want to cream off such a large percentage that for a ‘slowish’ worker it is demoralizing? I have at last given up the idea that the art is what matters and material gain is almost mercenary. My husband’s serious illness recently forced a re-evaluation of that thought. Being self absorbed in one’s art can be so selfish. Is there any hope for people who do not paint very fast? Should we stick at it or go take up that job working in the supermarket?
(RG note) Galleries and dealers are part of the equation. Without them an artist has a hard time achieving higher prices. Dealers take the pressure off and leave you free to hang out with your passions. “Creaming” is not the appropriate word. Dealers create friends for you, build you up, take care of irksome economics, and are worth what you pay them. If they are decent they leave you alone to do your thing. With regard to artists who work slowly, I recommend going into some sort of multiple editions.
Envy, a useless emotion
by Bryan Dunleavy, Southampton, UK
Artists make many sacrifices for their art; starvation is never one of them. As I often say to my customers: “Artists like to eat just like everyone else.” Unfortunately there has been a lot of myth-making since the days when the sons and daughters of well-to-do parents went off to do the Bohemian thing in Paris, and artists and writers often have the tendency to represent the early days of struggle as “poverty.” Of course there are periods when one could have earned more money fixing the plumbing than from selling one’s art, but I bet if you stacked up the lifetime earnings of a successful full-time artist against a plumber, I know who would have the bigger pile. And before anyone starts to throw back the statistics that are routinely put out by grant-seeking writers and artists’ organizations, let me say that these are often skewed by including writers and artists whose full-time income comes from other sources. I recently visited a sculptor who has just moved to a large country house with a purpose-built studio in gardens that Monet might admire. Four years ago, when I last visited her she was in much more modest accommodation. And I celebrate her success just as I celebrate Robert Genn’s ability to spend his money on a Bentley. A chaque-un son gout. Envy does not become us as artists. It is a useless negative emotion that has no impact on the person being envied and only eats away at the soul of the envier.
Power of choice
by Lindsey Santaniello, Bridgewater, NH, USA
I do not think anyone has to explain themselves or their purchases to those who are asking for some sort of justification. “Artist” does not necessarily mean, “starving.” The motivation of envy by those asking for such justification is a huge waste of their time and energy which would be better spent on their own art. How nice it is that an artist who is personally, intellectually and emotionally giving to thousands of strangers can be financially successful too! Robert does not have the image of the greedy, manipulative, consumptive capitalist that radiates the “image” of success. Personally, I am glad that I spend my time being aware of my environment and my power to make choices, and not wasting my energy wondering why others have what I don’t.
by Joan Gaetz
Interesting isn’t it that John’s response to your Bentley was resentment rather than, “Wow, look what artists can do, I could have that too.” Your response to Adrienne in the clickback Regimentation mentions spatial filing. Do you think we could have more tips on spatial filing?
(RG note) “Spatial filing” is a euphemistic term I use for living and working in a messy and confused environment. Many of us like to know the approximate area where things can be found. We know that if we look in that area we are liable to find what we’re looking for. Many of us just like to have the comfort of having the “stuff” somewhat in sight. When you find you are spending an inordinate amount of time looking for things, you have let spatial filing get out of hand. Toward mid-life it is recommended that you start getting rid of two things for every new one you collect. If you time it right it’s eventually an easy clean-up for your offspring and the check for your coffin will bounce.
by Kristine L. Amodeo, N California, USA
I was quite amazed (but comforted) to read Adrienne Renee’s letter and Robert’s reply. I’ve never heard of the term Spatial Filing, but it fits me to a tee. I didn’t know there were other people like me! I’m a chronic pack rat, and lose things pretty quickly. I file things on my desk (laterally) and then have to excavate down through the piles in about 5 months worth of papers to find what I need. However, I know what stack things are in….usually. When I am good and file things in my file cabinets, I often forget what I called the file and then create a second one for the same thing. This had really got me wondering if I wasn’t just a bit batty. I’m not that old yet, but feel like my brain has always been 95. (I’ve just hit the 44 mark.)
(RG note) If you believe in the “mix and match” method of idea generation, spatial filing might just be a creativity booster.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 100 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2002.
That includes William Band of Mississauga, Ontario who wrote, “If we bought more Kraft Dinner and I put in more hours I would have a Bentley, an auto of quality, craftsmanship and sound design. This has been one of my biggest regrets in life.”
And Walt Evans, of Klamath Falls, Oregon who has given away 3800 paintings in his lifetime and because of this he considers himself rich indeed.
And Barbara Woollcombe who wrote, “Mine would be a Bentley, too. A Rolls would not satisfy.”
And Sue McNally who says, “Suffering and doing without in order to make yourself into a better artist is hogwash.”
And Cissy who wrote, “There is no secret to success other than hard work, and loving what you do.”
And Ellen McCormick Martens, of Buffalo, NY who says, “Why shouldn’t artists be prosperous and successful? I think the myth of the insane, starving artist who is misunderstood and reviled until after his/her death has GOT TO GO!” And Babs Beatty of Salt Lake City, Utah who says, “What I think that guy John really wants is a Bentley.”
An amusing and informative collection of previously unpublished remarks that subscribers have made about the Twice-Weekly Letters is at http://painterskeys.com/remarks/