Art for Our Sake
It has been said that the purpose of art is to provide what life does not. In fact, that very phrase was crafted by Tom Robbins, as Bohemian a writer as ever free-based an adjective, and it had a profound effect on this writer as a pimply-faced adolescent. In my youth, I though Normal Rockwell was the perfect artist—his paintings told an unambiguous, easy-to-digest story, evoking halcyon memories of a time I never knew except in Mayberry reruns. Rockwell's works were like perfect—um, photographs. Which made me reflect on what an artist's role in the world is.
Growing up, I fancied myself somewhat of a budding artist, and used my pen-and-ink skills to recreate some great still-life photographs. I strove for realism on a grand scale, and warmly accepted accolades from my family. Strangely, I was never approached to do a gallery show, which fit in perfectly with my schedule as I was finishing my public school career and developing my poor-college-student persona. My free time was occupied with flipping hamburgers at the local McD's and drinking copious quantities of cheap domestic beer. In other words, I squandered the most creative years of my life. I had the whole "hardship-and-poverty" thing going on, but I expressed my inner torment by engaging in drunken ski weekends and helping my roommate cultivate weed in his closet.
My lack of artistic output doesn't leave the world any poorer. I mean, how many pen-and-ink renderings of mountains does the world need? I have largely replaced the urge to despoil clean sheets of paper with ink with other creative outlets, including making porch tables out of beer-bottle caps, reading and (arguably) writing. I still appreciate art, and have assembled a small collection of eclectic prints around Chateau Lightcap. Although I am past the age to contribute to global art history, I still appreciate the art that can only be inspired by the creative freedom that comes from not giving a rat's ass.
Not too many months ago, I made the acquaintance of an artist I'll call Frank, which isn't his real name, because artists have much more eclectic names that most people can't pronounce. Frank has luxuriated in the sort of footloose lifestyle that hasn't been seen since Odysseus returned from his trip to the islands. Instead of slaying monsters and trifling with angry gods, Frank spent years touring the country in a clapped-out RV, creating his art as he went. He bounced around several art communities, had gallery showings, smoked a lot of pot, and went an entire year without owning a pair of shoes. He spent months eating coconuts and watching the sunrise from a Mexican beach house, and later absconded to a quaint New Mexico art community. He lived in an adobe house-cum-studio that was older than Christ and created his art, embedding himself with the local art culture.
Unfortunately, Frank had hard realities to face, like electric bills and art supplies. So he decided it was time to join the bourgeois and get a day job. He still created art, but after hours, and deposited regular paychecks, a novel act that no doubt entertained his new wife greatly. All the other artists scoffed, accusing him of selling out and losing his edge, which hurt Frank greatly, but the pain didn't frighten him since he now had health insurance. Still, you can tell that having to surrender his Bohemian trappings had affected his spirit.
I enjoy Frank's company immensely, and as a kindred spirit-in that my creativity is now subservient to my profession—it is wickedly indulgent to commiserate. Frank is still so close to his art that he gets physically excited when he talks about his inner torment, while I am content to look at my past works on the wall and fumble with the cap on the gin bottle. Still, I find the power of his passion moving, and attach myself remora-like to his purity. Art is still noble to Frank, and he still would rather create than appreciate.
So if the essence of art is to provide what life does not, how do we define true art? I like to think that true art springs from the soul, expressing in a fluency not contained in any existing language the joys and pains and torments and loves of existence. Looking at an artist's work should be like peeling back their scaly, unwashed epidermis and seeing the mystical stuff that is contained in our own bodies, albeit in small, less eloquent amounts. I am unable to do that with pen-and-ink drawings of hummingbirds and cowboys, but some artists—the really good ones—can pull it off, and make me reflect on my humanity and experience, something I can rarely accomplish myself.
So, from a salty old dried-up stinky conservative, a veritable cog of the system, who worries about mundane things like my credit rating and foreign policy, I want to pop the lid off whatever it is artists drink nowadays (hopefully not absinthe) and bid you a fair and hearty thanks. Without the pain and suffering of the artists, we'd all be politely applauding Normal Rockwell and living in Mayberry. How dull would that be?
Henry Lightcap hangs his art collection in Las Cruces.