dead painters

Why do painters paint?  The answer would seem obvious: because they are compelled to.  But why painting?  Why slapping colors on canvas and moving them around with this tool, this brush?

Painting probably predates many other forms of expression.  The earliest cave wall pictures are estimated to have first emerged between thirty and forty thousand years ago.  There is no evidence of literature at this time, much less significant language, written or spoken.  No evidence of performance art, at least nothing conscious.  Painting on the cave walls or on rocks with clay and blood and whatever other medium was accessible spoke to the primitive mind.  More, it spoke to what was evolving out of the primitive mind.  It accessed the higher functions of the brain, this use of visual symbols and their interpretation.

Still, when you think about the modern world, the last century, with all we’ve had going on it’s amazing to think we’ve paid any attention to painters at all.  It makes sense, you might suppose, that in the pre-photographic days of Van Gogh and Gauguin and Rembrandt that painters were part of the popular culture.  But what about Pablo Picasso in the 1930s and 40s?  Jackson Pollock in the 50s?  Sure, there was no cable television then.  No internet, of course.  Not as many gadgets to distract us.  So what about Andy Warhol in the 1980s?  Or Jean-Michel Basquiat?  Was it still relatively quiet enough to notice what they were doing – smearing their ideas, their own symbolic systems, on modern cave walls?

Basquiat began by doing graffiti, which, when you really look at it, seems to be as closely linked to cave-wall painting as any of the forms of visual art.  Crude symbols, often esoteric to a clan or a tribe, are quickly thrown up on a hard surface like a brick wall, frequently telling a story of character or battle.  Basquiat grew up in this world.  Born in Brooklyn in the 1980s into a upper middle class family, he was poised, in more ways than one, to infiltrate the art scene of his day.

For one thing, from videotaped interviews and documentaries (particularly Tamra Davis’s “The Radiant Child”) we find that Basquiat really wanted to get famous.  Fame, in the 80s, was very different even from what it is today.  Today we are saturated by it.  Warhol’s own prediction has become one of the great prophecies of the twentieth century – the eccentric artist and entrepreneur had a keen insight that virtually predicted the internet and YouTube.  And while we’ve always had unsavory characters who are infamous, in today’s world there seems to be a glut of them.  Why does Brittney Spears exist?  Or Paris Hilton?  Or shows like the Shytards or Jersey Shore?  Where did American Idol come from?  The means to accessing fame have created the wide road and low barrier for entry which, in turn, has increased the ephemera of fame.  In other words, today we have just what Andy predicted – the fifteen minutes of fame that just about every last woman and child can attain with the right gimmick, or fitting in to just the right fleeting niche.

In Basquiat’s day, though, things were different.  Likely with the advent of the moving picture this idea of fame grew in our minds.  In the 1950s, it had permeated the culture to the streets.  Allen Ginsberg said, “There is no beat generation.  It’s just a bunch of guys trying to get published.”  While they are different – publishing and media fame – it’s of little question that the impulse to become recognized has evolved both exponentially with the immense population growth of the planet and via the media which fame is made possible.  More people, more ways to be seen, stronger impetuses to “make it.”  Basquiat truly wanted to “make it.”  So he positioned himself just where he would have the best chance to do so.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, the author takes various examples of success and shows us the hidden factors we may not have otherwise considered.  Of the Canadian All Star Hockey team, for example, Gladwell points out some inarguable data – two thirds of the All Star team share birthdays between January and April.  Is this coincidence?  No.  Gladwell explains that these sports figures had early advantages based on when they were born in the year.  When the cut-off to get into certain junior league teams was ten years old, those kids who turned ten on January 1st had a greater advantage for success than those kids born on December 31st.  Even though either child was, technically, ten years old, the kids born on January 1st really were a whole year older.  Thus they were often taller, faster, stronger, and more mature.  Because of this physical and mental edge, they tended to do better, which afforded them more attention by the coaches and so more ice time to hone their skills.  While they did better and better, the kids born towards the end of the year fared worse, got less attention and less ice time.  Early advantages, Gladwell uncovers, lead to more opportunities down the road.

Some of the richest families in the world began with the men who were born at a particular time – Rockefeller and Carnegie, for instance, who came into the world at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.  Conversely, the smartest man in the world, who has a 180 IQ, lives on and operates a farm in the Midwest, instead of designing colonies on Mars for NASA, or solving the global energy crisis.  This is because the smartest man in the world grew up with an abusive father in a low-income home.  He was never taught how to effectively deal with people without anger and got himself thrown out of school for mouthing off to the Dean.  When we look closely at success, and fame, Gladwell points out, we can often see the hidden factors which contributed to it, and we can also find the factors that may have conspired against it. 

Basquiat exiled himself from his home.  He decided to live in the streets of Manhattan.  But this wasn’t because he had a personality disorder or was using drugs.  Basquiat’s becoming a denizen of Manhattan alleyways and bars wasn’t caused by his shortcomings – it was a move made by his greater instincts.  There he worked on his street art and paintings, all the while strategically positioning himself for maximum visibility.  At the time, if you listen to the interviews and watch the films, you see that there was “about 500 people” who became this sort of social club and would hang out in the same downtown district of Manhattan.  Part of this group formed a cable access variety show and Basquiat signed up.  While his reputation grew some, it wasn’t until two things happened that Basquiat entered into our cultural history.  For one, the young painter was a great admirer of Warhol’s and learned his schedule.  He knew where the pop artist liked to have lunch, and so would hang out whenever possible in that area.  When he finally saw Andy one day sitting in his favorite restaurant, Basquiat went in and showed him his work.  The other thing that happened was a popular journalist and art critic had been following the career of Julian Schnabel for some time, and wanted to start fresh.  He was looking for someone – he even admits to wanting a minority artist to follow – so that he could track the artist’s progress from obscurity and into fame.  He found Basquiat and wrote the article – “The Radiant Child” – which officially introduced the young painter to the New York Art scene.

Why do painters paint?  There is no one reason.  Basquiat’s work is filled with references to African American events and culture as well as countless nods to the works of other artists he admired.  For him, the medium was something like a window which he could pass to the public the history of a people, a culture, and an art world which he felt important.  It came in and filtered through his incredible, multi-tasking mind.  He presented these elements in a way that a child might – Basquiat had been hit by a car when he was six years old, and it is speculated that the somewhat juvenile style of his painting and drawing was tied to that event.  As if he were saying, “look, look through the eyes of a child at this incredibly diverse culture of ours.”

Jackson Pollock worked for years on surrealist paintings that bear little resemblance to his most popular works – the drip-method spaghetti style that he has become so associated with.  He struggled with an alcoholic mind, one beset by intense jealousy (for Picasso), family problems and deep anxieties.  His painting was his method for coping with his myriad dysfunctions and an analysis of the medium of painting itself.

Warhol used painting to provide us a kind of funhouse mirror to reflect our commercial world and our obsession with celebrity, manufacturing, consumption, and pop star status.  His work was less a colorful illustration of the past, but a glimpse into the future, a peek at the process machinery underlying the illusion of choice and diversity.  Look, said Warhol, showing us the same tomato soup can over and over, the same Elvis or Monroe, repeating them with little variation, but only perhaps with a different hue added or taken away.  Over and over again, Warhol said to us.  This is what’s becoming of our culture.  This redundant machine.  Warhol spoke to us, almost warning us of a great homogenization and extreme dilution of society, the blend of the artistic and the commercial on mass-production scales.

And what about Van Gogh?  Was he motivated to get famous?  Maybe the poor guy just wanted to sell a painting.  Maybe his idea wasn’t about getting famous, but at least being recognized.  Validation is something important to human beings regardless of the age we live in or the accessibility of fame.  Even to those cave men, likely validation was important.  See what I did, Grog?  Do you see it and understand it?  Do you know how I suffered over this labor?  Van Gogh most certainly suffered for his art.  When you read Huston Smith’s Lust for Life, you get the image of this man in the blazing hot summer of the French countryside, his scalp red and burning beneath the scorching sun as he painted furiously the fields, the wheat, the villages, the streets.

Van Gogh never sold a painting while he lived.  This could be arguably attributed to something else the writer Malcolm Gladwell takes a close look at in his book Tipping Point.  Basquiat was highly sociable, and positioned himself in this “group of about 500 people” who frequented the New York City night scene in SoHo during the 80s.  There, a collection of mavens, collectors, and salesman congregated – essential types, Gladwell points out, for launching an epidemic.  Even Pollock had ties with the art scene, if not only through his partner, the more gregarious Lee Krasner.  While Pollock may have consorted with other lush reprobates and discussed art and painting, Krasner circulated among more “appropriate” types – critics and respectable artists that helped buoy Pollock’s early floundering career.  Van Gogh had no one.  His brother ran an art gallery and bought Vincent’s paintings, but where was the artist himself for the community to see and touch?  He was off in the French country side, the sun baking his brain as he painted madly, day in and day out, the colors which had accessed his heart and stayed there to haunt it until the day it beat no more.

Which brings me to the final fascination – what happens when the painter dies?  A whole new set of rules seems to exist here.  Basquiat, after receiving a substantial measure of the recognition he’d sought for so long, was celebrated at a much higher level after his passing, and embraced finally as a true artist.  While alive, the artist was recognized in the New York and LA art scenes, but never achieved the status only granted exclusively by the governing Art Community, only as a gimmick or pet child.  Posthumously, of course, he was granted entre to the ultimate art world.

Van Gogh is known centuries later for his work after dying penniless and underrecognized.  And while Picasso may have entertained fame while he was alive, there is no denying the growth of his recognition after his demise.  What is it then, that restricts us from acknowledging an artist fully in their living days?  Why do we wait until they are gone?  There’s more than a lack of Gladwell’s Tipping Point factors at work here.  It’s as if, instead, there is something taboo or even egalitarian which stifles championing the true merit of the artist – or any human being, for that matter –  while still living.  It would be presumptive or embarrassing to celebrate them prematurely.  It would be implicitly acknowledging something greater than secular human life, it would be acknowledgment of a much greater mystery.  For what ever reason, it seems tacit that we must bide our time until the artist croaks before we’re allowed to throw up our arms and at last declare, “Wow!! He was awesome!”  Or, if we do celebrate them, it must be with some measure of skepticism.  For every praising review there must be a critic who attacks the artist; they are not allowed to be truly exalted while living.  Yet in death, no one dares come forward with a bad review.  Suddenly its unanimous that the late artist was nothing short of incredible.

Granted, there are still people who quibble over the merits of, say, Jackson Pollock’s work.  If you’re an art collector, you likely don’t quibble, and if you’re an artist, you probably don’t argue either.  But even those people who stand by the old “a child could have done that” and lack the insight into what Pollock gave of himself to arrive at that breakthrough, they don’t speak up too loud – it’s tough to argue when someone is as generally well-known and well-regarded as Pollock.

Why do painters paint?  For money.  For fame and recognition.  To shine the light on something.  To illustrate their take on history.  To share their vision of the future.  To convey religious experience.  To cope with dysfunction.  To purge demons.  To scrub clean the unconscious mind by reaching in, yanking it out and splattering it on the canvas.  To die and be reborn in immortality.  To color the cave walls, to remind the world of the depth of the human experience.  To leave signs of passing, so that when all is left is the giant process machinery churning out movie after regurgitated movie, paranormal-romance-franchise after paranormal-romance-franchise, there beneath the steel minarets and endless tubes and tracks of the machine is color, and variety, and question.  Whether the impressions are made by those who, due to circumstance and drive have become the examples of painters in our culture, or the countless others just as gifted and important who remain hidden within the largesse, the cave walls are covered in grafted blood and clay, used to form the images of our human experience.


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