Replay: The power of an artist

The Sistine Madonna

“Make way for the great Raphael!”

Why do people do art?

Want the quickest way for most people to emit a derisive snort? Tell them you’re an artist.

I got to thinking about this the other day when my writer friend Susan Gabriel posted about what art means to her. She said, “WE MUST–women and men alike–claim and protect whatever creative talents we have, or we run the risk of not recovering.” Pretty passionate. But why is she so? Writing hasn’t made her rich (I don’t think so, at least). It won’t make her thinner or healthier or have better cholesterol numbers or a bigger house. It sure doesn’t impress most people in society—being an artist doesn’t do that, unless you’re a very famous one. People wiggle their finger in their ear when they hear you declare you’re an artist. They privately (or maybe not so privately) say you should get a real job.

There’s a scene in Entertaining Welsey Shaw where protagonist Daniel Ferreira, tries to explain to his father how and why he wants to become a professional writer after college, It’s a conversation many have had, with its attendant frustrations  After all, what kind of a job is that? What do you do? Who do you do it for? How do you know anyone is going to pay you? After all, “artist” is not exactly a job you “:get.” There’s no application to fill, no ads to answer, no interviews, no objective skill requirements.

Sounds like a scam.

Daniel’s parents, both retired civil servants who’ve moved on to a nicer home in wealthier climes, try to steer him to their idea of an “artistic” job. They know someone whose son recently started writing copy for a trash-talking radio show host who’s about to go national. This other kid’s doing well. He just bought a sportscar.

But people have not only bothered to be artists—they’ve died for the privilege. A privilege that includes no health benefits, no pension, no IRA and odds of being recognized that are about the same as the odds you’ll be struck by lightning.

It can’t just be ego. People forget egos take a HUGE beating in art. Many artists need the big heads they have, because, like a piñata, people are going to take many swings at it during your career.

The year 1752 might yield a clue.

That’s when Augustus III, king of Poland, acquired Raphael’s Sistine Madonna for the art gallery in Dresden (where it still hangs). Auggie was so moved by the work that he famously ordered, “Make room for the great Raphael!” when the painting was brought into the room and positioned in the sunlight. He and his retinue then spent hours just staring at it. (The cherubs that adorn the bottom of the painting are better-known in this day and age, gracing many refrigerator magnets and T-shirts.)

Imagine this man of wealth and privilege brought to his knees by the scrapings of pigment on canvas. Others had bowed before him, but he bowed before “the great Raphael.”

Or there’s Pope Julius II urging, threatening and finally pleading with Michelangelo to finish his own Sistine masterpiece. For all his power on earth, the pope’s time is limited, and he knows that. That’s one limitation art does not face.

Mighty Russian prince Nicholas Galitzin is remembered today as the guy who commissioned the last five string quartets—widely considered the greatest in history—by Beethoven. I googled him just now and the Beethoven quartets are the first thing that came up. He doesn’t even have his own separate entry in Wikipedia…were it not for Beethoven, Nick would likely be forgotten.

Then there’s the Archduke Rudolph. Known by various fancy titles, Archduke and Prince Imperial of Austria, Prince Royal of Hungary and Bohemia, Cardinal, an Archbishop of Olomouc, and a member of the House of Habsburg-Lorraine, today he’s remembered solely as one of Beethoven’s important patrons. To him was dedicated, among other masterworks, the Piano Trio that bears his name. Many times he and Beethoven would have volcanic fights and the composer would storm off—but it was always the archduke who worried about repairing relations. Perhaps he sensed who in the long run was the most important.

Stephen Sondheim once observed that the only two things that we pass on after we die are children and art. He might have mentioned political and other kinds of philosophy and all-around learnedness, as well as bodies of scientific knowledge, but it could be argued that those too are a form of art.

After all, Rockefeller is gone, but Rockefeller Center remains. William Randolph Hearst died decades ago, but people still flock to Julia Morgan’s masterpiece at San Simeon. And maybe we’re all hoping for a little bit of that. Immortality. Or at least a passing thought, a nod of recognition, from the future. Is it a coincidence so many artists are agnostic or atheist? Perhaps they’re seeking immortality some other way.


2 responses

  1. Hi John,
    Thanks for mentioning me amongst all this nobility and for another thoughtful post. I think what I’m going for more than legacy (a nod in the future) is a sense that my life has meaning and that my struggle–and the struggle of other writers, poets, painters, et. al–is about the pursuit of something bigger, what I choose to call Art. Otherwise, I would look at my life and question my sanity (and yours). :-)


    October 25, 2013 at 7:51 am

  2. “It can’t just be ego. People forget egos take a HUGE beating in art. Many artists need the big heads they have, because, like a piñata, people are going to take many swings at it during your career.”

    Indeed. Unless there’s no substance behind it.


    October 25, 2013 at 8:36 am

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