WHAT I WISH SOMEONE HAD TOLD ME ABOUT ARTISTS: We Will Never Know Our True Legacy

Try our best, we are not in control of how we will be remembered.

There’s a brilliant cartoon called Non Sequitur by Wiley Miller that ran a few weeks ago. It starts with a caption, “The Get-Rich-Quick Correspondence Art School” and shows an artist standing before a huge empty canvas, paintbrush in hand, reading the first page of the instruction book:

“Step 1: Fill in blank canvas.

Step 2: Sell it for $1,000,000*

*Price triples if you die first!”

Funny? Not funny? Sad? All of the above!

We all know about Vincent Van Gogh, who sold maybe one painting in his lifetime, whose work (one painting) sold in 1990 for a record $82.5 million dollars.

Then there’s the most popular artist of the Victorian era, whose work, within a few decades after his death, was deemed saccharine and trite. He is so forgotten I can’t easily find him by Googling, I just remember that story from one of my art history books.

We have our own Thomas Kinkade, arguably the most commercially successful artist of our time, mass-producing paintings that look like a sickeningly-sweet Christmas card my grandmother might have sent out. Love him, hate him, he certainly knew how to manipulate the market, to the extent it’s estimated that 1 in 20 households in the U.S. own a print of his work. Will his work stand the test of time? We’ll see.

The irony is, we tend to concern ourselves with achieving fame and fortune, or at least a presence in the world. (Yes, I secretly dream of a time when people will clamor for my work!)

But we actually have very little control over that.

Oh, we participate in art events, we self-promote, we strive to work with the best galleries. We work for good publicity, we work our social media, we are delighted when the rich and famous buy our work. (Double publicity!)

Some of us use more extreme measures.

We could be famous for cutting off an ear (this was not done for publicity, of course, but this is how many ordinary people identify Van Gogh), or inserting a crucifix upside down in a bottle of urine. We could be famous for trademarking “Painter of Light”, (except that all painters, technically, are recording light.) It can be difficult to think of a more disturbing painting than Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights”, and yet, it has held its place in time. In my recent column about finding an audience,  I shared how the attention actress/writer April Winchell’s now-archived website Regretsy actually brought attention—and sales—to truly awful handmade items sold on Etsy.

So maybe we’ll be famous after we’ve been dead awhile. Maybe, if we manipulate the media cleverly, we can be famous now.

If not, well, maybe our art, like the images in those prehistoric Ice Age caves, will survive for thousands of years, to be discovered by an entirely new race of humans (or…..aliens??) who will marvel at our work, find its full beauty, and wonder what the heck we were trying to say.

We’re not wrong to feel this way. We’re just humans.

We all want to believe we matter.

We all want to believe we have made a difference in this world.

We all want to believe the work of our heart matters.

That is the central core of my artist statement, realizing that we all want to leave our mark in the world.

That’s not wrong. That’s achingly beautiful. It’s extremely human.

Maybe we will, maybe we won’t.

In the end, though, all we can do is to do the best we can.

We have to work at our own pace, in our own manner, with our own style. We have to make a little room in our lives to do that work.

We must respect the work we do, and try not to be envious of the work of others, nor their reputation, income, or celebrity.

We have to discover the stories that mean everything to us, and share them, through our creative work, with the world.

In a perfect world, all creative work would foster tolerance, harmony, love, respect for our earth and all the people on it, and be a force for good in the world.

But there is also a darkness in every heart, just as there is a bit of light within the greatest evil.

 That, too, is what it means to be human.

And so my hope for you, today, is that this helps you set aside your agonizing about fame and fortune. I hope it can change your definition of success, so you feel fulfilled with your efforts to make art.

I hope we can create our work today and let go of focusing only on where it lands in the world.

I hope we can all find a way, and a reason, to keep on ‘making’. I hope we can let go of envy of the success of others, and our own fears of failure, and simply rejoice that we have the luxury, and the privilege, to be able to do this work.

Our only real obligation is to make it. And then share it with the world, through sales (yes!), through connection, through relationships, and mostly through our love for what we do.

And have hope that this will be enough.

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READING THE OBITS

 

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Will future archeologists see my work as true artifacts? Clever fakes? Or even know them for the introspective artwork they are? 10,000 years from now, who will know the makings of our hands? And who will know the mysteries of our hearts?

I wrote this post almost nine years ago. Still true.

May 20, 2007

I’ve arrived at that age where I read the obituaries in the paper each day. (Actually, I started years ago but it seems more age-appropriate now.)

After checking in with the important stuff (Is it anyone I know? Were they younger or older than me??) I glance through the rest of the article for clues about who they were.

This person left behind a huge family of grieving loved ones. This one outlived many others. This one founded an industrial dynasty. This one traveled the world for the love of adventure. This one worked tirelessly to help her fellow man. This one was an Elk, or a Moose, or a veteran. This one was an advocate for animals, for children, for the earth. This one wrote a book, made a movie, sang in their church choir. This one made toys for his grandchildren. And this one always had fresh-baked cookies and a seat at the table for those in need of a warm heart and a sympathetic ear.

Real lives, all. None for us to judge. We know too little, in the end, for that.

There is a strong central theme running through each one.

The desire for them to be remembered.

It got me thinking this morning:

Remembered for what?

We cannot ultimately control how we will be remembered. If we leave behind an impressive legacy, or enough loved ones, we may have a slightly better chance.

Even then, for how long? A few years? A few generations, if we’re lucky to have mattered that much to some? For centuries, if we are a Mozart, or a queen, or a tragic hero?

It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that we cannot always control the outcome of our actions in our lives. Some of the most noble actions have led to the most dreadful outcomes and vice versa.

Even the most evil act in the world may someday generate some good. Israel, the United Nations and the lifework of Elie Wiesel (“Too remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin of all…”) are but a few legacies of the Holocaust.

If we cannot control the outcome, how do we decide what is worth doing?

All we can do is live our best intention, and make it manifest in our everyday lives.

The older I get, the more I realize how hard this is to do on all fronts–my personal life, my professional life, in my art and writing. I am really good at some intentions and frankly awful at others. And sometimes my failures are more outstanding than my successes, as my critics love to tell me.

In the end, the words I wrote for my aunt’s funeral sum it up the best for me. I scribbled them on a scrap of paper that morning, and it was lost in the shuffle on the way back home.

I said that all lives, great and small are precious.

That in the end, even small and quiet lives can touch the hearts of many others in ways we cannot foresee or fathom.

I remember saying that our days are surely numbered, and none of us knows the number of our days.

We can only live each one with as much passion, as much wonder, as much love, as much forgiveness, and as much courage as we can muster.

Because the world can be a harsh and frightening place, and it needs that from us. It needs our passion, and compassion. It needs our open heart.

It needs the very best from us. Our very best effort to make it a little brighter, a little better not only for our loved ones, but for everyone.

Even quiet lives and little acts of courage and kindness can have repercussions we cannot ever imagine Because the diary of Anne Frank is a legacy of the Holocaust, too.

For me, part of my very best effort means my art.

I realize my confusion and unhappiness has been because I could not see what its place is in the world. I’ve been doing my best to make sure it’s as “big” as it can be.

But then I have to let it go. I have to let it go out into the world and let it be what it is.

That is as it should be. It’s as much my child as my own flesh and blood. And like my children, I want it to shine as brightly as it can.

Like my children I must fight fiercely to protect it when it is vulnerable, and always out of love.

And like my children, it will ultimately find its own place in the world, beyond my expectations and intentions.

I cannot “control” what effect it has, or what it will mean to others, or even whether I will be remembered for it after I am gone. Just as I have no right to control how my children will craft their own lives, nor who they will marry, or how they will make their living in the world.

And like my children, I see more and more that this is a mystery to be embraced–not “handled.” There can be joy is in doing my best–then letting go of the outcome.

And trusting that even tiny actions of encouragement, acts of good intention, acts of creation, might leave their mark in the world long afte I and my work am forgotten.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Let go.