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Portrait of the Artist as... Scullery Maid   (January 26, 2007)

While I was scrubbing the bathroom floor yesterday, my mind wandered to the film American Splendor and my friend Gary Baker's comments about artists. Gary had strongly recommended the film, and now I recommend it to you.

It's the story of what you might charitably describe as an eccentric (or misanthrope, if you prefer) who is driven to create comic book dialogs. Since he can't draw worth beans, he illustrates his stories with childish stick figures. But by happenstance he knows comic book artist (and fellow eccentric) R. Crumb, who likes the stories and goes on to illustrate many of them.

("Six Degrees" note: my brother's office in the south of France is located a stone's throw from R. Crumb's home in a small, terribly picturesque old village.)

Gary's point about artists (meaning any creator, not just a painter-type) is that the real ones have to create what they create--it is not willed or even stoppable. The character in American Splendor is just such a person--he doesn't calculate the probable success of his art/creations, or model them on others' templates--he just does what comes to him. He literally cannot stop himself from putting his ideas to paper.

We know this Portrait of the Artist as Slightly Mad Godlike Creator from various movies, and of course the guy/gal is always eventually recognized as a genius. But there are many more creative types (like me, for instance) who never achieve any recognition. Hence, Portrait of the Artist as Scullery Maid. Maybe our work is mediocre, or not of our own era, or maybe it's just too bizarre to ever resonate with enough people to achieve recognition/popularity. The artist has no idea why he/she is scrubbing floors rather than being toasted by the glittering critical elite.

This is not a complaint, just a reality. You may wonder why I tossed in a photo of myself playing my 1976 Les Paul Deluxe. I did this mostly because I was tired of text-only entries, and wanted some color, but the other reason is to illustrate the point: I am a mediocre musician, but I have fun improvising and learning (slowly) new material. When I'm feeling good, I often play for a half-hour or more a day (usually acoustic, to keep my fingers strong). When I'm down, I don't play. Creating something, even a melody no one else will hear, is its own reward. Ditto a nice meal, a sketch, a poem, or any other creation.

The glory of art is a false attractor. As a writer, I have struggled with this question: am I really driven to put down this story running in my head, or am I merely hoping to win recognition? After two decades of very limited success, it's clear that I am doing it for the internal rewards of creation. The external rewards have been limited and are very likely to remain so. (My first novel was a commercial bomb, selling only a couple hundred copies last year. This is, my publisher reports, pretty typical--but still, disheartening to the hopeful artist.) As for free-lancing--the average free-lance writer makes less than $5,000 a year. Hoo-hah.

The illusory nature of artistic success is brilliantly illustrated by the 1960 film The World of Apu, written and directed by Satyajit Ray. The film is the third and final installment of Ray's "Apu Trilogy," the first two films being Pather Panchali and Aparajito. I won't spoil the movie for you--if you like movies, you are really missing out if you don't see the trilogy--but there is a scene which speaks very directly to the shallowness of the artist's dreams of grandeur. Apu has a knack for writing, and he works diligently on his first book. But once he has lost love, he realizes the hollowness of his aspirations, and throws his manuscript off a hill. As the pages scatter in the breeze, we feel an immense sadness for him--not at the loss of his dream, but in his misguided allegiance to that dream.

I just finished a 160,000 word novel and shipped it to my publisher. Only God knows if they will like it and publish it, or if it will languish for the rest of my life on a dusty shelf, waiting patiently to be tossed in the recycling bin when I croak off. Either scenario is possible, with the odds favoring the latter. This is the deal with creating: you can't know there will be a market for your ideas or work. The odds are there won't be. the only thing the artist can know is: that melody sounds good, this sentence sounds right, that stroke of color works.

Important correction: Yesterday's entry stated that government employees have no stake in Social Security. As knowledgeable reader Nikki reports, that is no longer true:

This is only true for federal employees under the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS). That ended in 1998, and all Fed employees hired since then, like me, do indeed have to pay into SS under FERS, or the Federal Employee Retirement System. I've got SS taxes taken out of every check, and I'm convinced I'll never see a dime. But be assured that some fed workers do worry about social security.
Thank you, Nikki, for this clarification.

For more on this subject and a wide array of other topics, please visit my weblog.


copyright © 2007 Charles Hugh Smith. All rights reserved in all media.

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