The Unprofessional Artist

Posted in Art with tags , , on March 16, 2014 by swampmessiah

I have never wanted to be an artist. For someone who has always been known to be drawing and to be good at it, this is a funny statement. Yet I’ve never considered it a career option. Seriously, though, nothing else was a career option, either.

Then, during Christmas break of my senior year of high school, I started playing with oil paints in earnest and, after graduating in June 1975, turned most of my conscious hours to a further study of art history and painting. It was then that I knew that I didn’t want to be an artist. They tend to live unsettled lives and not to have much money or many material possessions and while I’ve never cared much about money or status I do like to turn my home into a library.

But it was also a matter of not having the temperament to promote myself.

And, ultimately, it was a realization that I actually need to make art, that something needs to come out of me that my conscious mind has no control of and no intellectual or external force can dictate.

In the beginning I sold a few paintings to friends, classmates, and family. If it was a work that I’d already created all was fine. If it was a commission for something I probably would have done anyway, such as a portrait of a rock band, it came out alright. But if it was for something I would not normally do, such as a landscape, it was a painful failure.

Over the years my art has persistently taken a turn toward the sexual until, in the spring of 1983, I began doing drawings that were sexually explicit and it came to be the only graphic work I was producing, something not many galleries are willing to put on their walls. It has taken me decades to untangle what that was about, and I’ve been finding it was a lot more than hormones and cabin fever.

It took me quite a few years to filter through this, and to come to terms with the limitations of exhibitors, still going through the motions of looking for a gallery to sell or exhibit my stuff. This led to a show of my drawings at UMD’s Tweed Museum in the spring of 1983 and propelled the Duluth Art Institute into putting up a group exhibition of drawing in the spring of 1985.

That was the last time I’ve shown any drawing or painting of mine in public.

Any reason I can give will sound puritanical and righteous. It was just a matter of artistic survival: if I had no inner compulsion to make the art I simply wouldn’t draw or write or paint anything and I cannot produce what I am not emotionally compelled to do.

I finally, consciously chose not to pursue art for money but to take any job that would keep my art free.

Slowly I’ve accepted the stigma of being an amateur rather than a failure. (It is perfectly honorable to fail at making a living through your art. You just have to be seen making the effort.)

Someone recently referred to me as a dilettante. At first I took offense, not so much because it implied I wasn’t serious about art (though there is that implication) but because of the class associations. Can a working class person, someone not much more than a janitor, be a dilettante? It sounds so affluent.

There aren’t many synonyms: amateur, dilettante, tyro (a totally alien word), dabbler, putterer. Specific to painting is the “Sunday painter”. Traditionally that would be someone who paints in the park to relax and, maybe, draw a little attention (and if they are good enough, a few strokes to their vanity).

Much more offensive, to me, is to call a non-professional artist a hobbyist. I would refer to someone playing in a cover band or the aforementioned Sunday painter as a hobbyist: someone who does it for pleasure or relaxation. But someone whose art is coming from some hidden psychological place as a matter of necessity is no hobbyist.

But I’ve had to live with my opinions as nothing more than a defensive posturing until last fall when I blundered into a wonderfully wise and coherent filmed monologue of musician and record producer Steve Albini talking about life in the recording industry. (I will quote it extensively in a moment.)

He is one of the most revered record producers in rock and a something of a legend because of his 1980s band Big Black. There are quite a few interviews, monologues, and lectures available on YouTube. I recommend watching all of them. He is always clear spoken and direct and intelligent. Whether or not you agree with him, and I don’t, he’s well worth listening to.

You can imagine the sense of validation I found in listening to him say that not everyone should expect to make a living through their art, that it’s not only hubristic but also destroys the art (or your feelings toward your art).

The quotes below, almost continuous, begin at 4:22 in the video. It opens with him discussing why a band might not choose to allow their song to be used in a film, which most bands would look at as easy money, if they’re not wanting to be associated with the message of the film.

“We’ll just carry on working at our day jobs for awhile and make money and pay rent. You know. We don’t have to use music as a tool to generate money. I think that’s an option that’s open to everyone. I think everyone could treat music that way. It’s in a way a hubristic presumption to think that you can be purely a musician and that the rest of the world will pay you for the privilege of hearing your music. I think that that’s a little bit naïve in some cases and, you know, grossly overstating your importance in other cases. And, in any case, it makes it harder for you to do things that you’re comfortable and happy with if you have to use your art as way of generating your income. Then you’re inexorably linking your lifestyle and your personal comfort with the decisions you make for your art. But I see music as something like, say, skiing or painting, something that you can enjoy doing for its own sake, and you should. Very, very few people should expect to do it professionally. Very few people should expect to do it as a career. And most of the tension within any artistic endeavor comes from the mistaken presumption that anyone who wants to can be a professional artist. You know. And that’s where a lot of discontent comes from. A lot of people’s dissatisfaction with how they’re treated comes not from the fact that they weren’t treated fairly but from the fact that they carry expectations about how they should be treated. And the easiest way to avoid that disappointment is just to maintain a realistic perspective on music or art or whatever it is you do as your creative expression. You maintain a perspective on that where that allows you to enjoy doing that.…If it’s a passion first and foremost you will enjoy it and it will be valid. And if you expect it to be your job as well, eventually, I think you will come to resent it, in the way that most people resent their jobs.”

Thank you, Mr. Albini.

Lifting the Lid and Scratching the Hemispheres

Posted in A Day in the Life, Perception, Social responsibility with tags , , , , , , , on November 16, 2013 by swampmessiah

“I believe that, somewhere in the world, there is a person, and only one person, who is not unique.”

I’m quoting myself, a bit of nonsense I just posted on Facebook.

I say stupid things like that all the time. I think it sums up most of my poetry, some of my visual art, and my typical application of sound. Nonsense, that is. I spout nonsense and call it art.

If I bother to listen to myself in social situations I find that I’m saying shit like that all the time. “And they all moved away from me on the bench there”—(Arlo Guthrie, from Alice’s Restaurant). Some people can’t wait until one of us gets out of the elevator. But a few enjoy the ride.…It might come from some sort of essential flakiness or lack of character or an inability to think coherently—and I suspect that there’s some truth to all three—but, really, I just find “reality”, the common world of convention, painfully boring. I just can’t go through the motions of social etiquette, beyond some expression of gratitude (had to learn that one, it didn’t come naturally).

I should also point out that this trait seems to run in the family, on my father’s side, though usually not quite as far off from the center of things known to the masses.

All of these statements and observations are true, I suppose, but not very interesting or meaningful.

On a more fundamental level I’m treating other people the way I’d like to be treated. And by that, I mean I’d like to have my imagination triggered. This is why the Tao and Zen are among the few philosophies, if that’s what we can call them, that have any appeal to me. Both have some element of moral philosophy but what looms large is the enigma—the koan, the statement that seems nothing but contradiction.

And it isn’t contradiction per se that interests me or typically comes out of my mouth or pen. I’m drawn to absurdity. The results might be profound but usually it’s nothing more than a little mental itch that skews perception. This is what I found interesting about Dada and Surrealism.

On the flip side, I have nothing against logic. It’s a useful tool. Logic can be very practical but also fun and entertaining. Unless it’s mandatory and obsessive, then it seems like mental illness. I just want to keep logic in its place and not make a fetish of it. There’s a part in the creative process that’s logical, it’s called craft, which can be a framework from which the strange and ephemeral aspects of art can spring forth. Even in the sciences logic only goes so far before the imagination has to take over.

So, if you say something sensible or absurd that causes an itch in my thoughts, rather than the unconscious gesture of Dr. Finklestein, I’ll lift the lid for a much appreciated scratch. I will revel in it. And I will thank you.

Toxic Correctness

Posted in Friendship, Morality, Perception, Social responsibility with tags , , on October 21, 2013 by swampmessiah

Before I go into this tirade against Political Correctness I need to draw a line on the ground, which I will surely cross many times as I write this (probably before the paragraph has ended). My political or social views tend to be in the left/liberal/progressive camp. My background is working class/rural (or north woods). The family I acquired at birth tend to be pretty conservative, though traditional or old fashioned might be a better way of saying it: on my mother’s side they strive to be polite in what they say and vote labor (in the United States that generally means Democratic); on my father’s side they’re more diverse, ranging from overtly bigoted, inflammatory Republicans to being as polite and class conscious as anyone on my mother’s side. Very few in my family are college educated and those that are tend to see it as a fancy vocational training rather than buying into the life style fantasies of an elite. The majority of my birth family are above average in intelligence, some very noticeably so, but none could in any way be described as intellectual.

My partner’s family is much more respectable and better educated. She herself had a very radical period in her youth and remains suspicious of all orthodoxies. I only mention this to say that our friends could come from almost any strata of society but tend to be of the more or less generic working people, blue or white collar, and that their religious and political beliefs are diverse.

And I mention her background to say that our children have grown up in what could be called a liberal or even radical household but that they have been taught to respect all and question all.

I also need to point out that I was born in 1957. That is, I was born into the Civil Rights movement and came of age with the anti-war protests of the Vietnam era, out of which sprang the Feminist movement, Gay rights, and the ecology movement.

In other words, sitting right with social equality and justice is as much part of my thinking as sitting right with Jesus might be for someone else. But probably more to the point is that my responses are not simple (if anyone’s are) and that my reactions tend not to be any kind of basic knee-jerk. I suppose my marking in the dust is so convoluted by now that it looks more like a hopped up pentangle than a simple line that can or cannot be crossed. I never see one side of a story.

So why do I consider Political Correctness toxic?

Almost thirty years ago I migrated from the north woods to the city eager for new ideas. At that time it seemed like a pretty good thing. It seemed like a step toward social justice. But that isn’t how it works in the real world.

I do know individuals who practice what they preach and have the best intentions in the world. But what I see most often, in daily usage, is very disheartening. First of all, the vocabulary and enforcement of political correctness seems like nothing more than the latest incarnation of middle class propriety (you know, “good people don’t use those words” and “we don’t call them that”…typically it’s ignorant and condescending). In most situations I see the middle class dictating to the working class and the poor how we will behave. Business as usual. I find the arrogance and presumption of this very offensive.

The most vile incarnation of political correctness involves the shaming of children. I see no difference between someone verbally assaulting a child, causing humiliation and shame, for playing with toy guns or dressing up as an Indian chief than I do for criticizing boys for playing with dolls or girls for playing with trucks. It’s fine if you picket the marketers or manufactures of these things, whichever side you’re on, but you should never shame children. The worst part is that it shuts down imagination, which I consider essential for the development of compassion. Or maybe the worst part is that you create human beings who never say or do anything without thinking, without looking over their shoulder first.

Another insidious side to political correctness, as put into practice, is that we’re being told that it’s not what we intend but how it’s interpreted. That is, it doesn’t matter what you’re talking about, it doesn’t matter what you meant to say: what matters is what the listener understood you to say. This goes in the face of our whole legal system. You have no way of predicting another person’s understanding of anything. If taken to court you could be vindicated but who has the money to do that? You could lose your job because someone misheard what you said, or twisted it to fit their own prejudices, and have very little recourse to logic, truth, justice, or sanity. If you work in an office environment, I’ll tell you, there is more prejudice shown against working class men than there is to almost any other group (we are not recognized as a group needing protection—I point this out not to ask for that protection but to point out hypocrisy.)

As it is, we are a culture of whiners. It seems almost logical these days to expect the rest of the population to curb their behavior because something hurts one’s feelings. (When my younger child was in grade school, in the class working on their fourth grade opera, they were told they had to change the story, which was about a perennially favorite childhood subject, orphans, because it might…what? Offend a classmate who is an orphan? Offend the teachers or parents who are orphans? In other words, the children should be restraining their imaginations to protect the feelings of adults? It might offend the parents who have adopted children and think the whole world should be shaped to protect them? Regardless of the bureaucratic motives the children were being forced to squelch their imaginations to protect someone’s feelings. I firmly believe the only way to protect children from harmful or painful words and ideas is to discuss those ideas with the children rather than sheltering them. Children should be sheltered from physical dangers, especially predators of one form or another, but not from ideas and feelings.)

So, society should be remodeled to conform to the fears of a few people? Or the anticipated fears? Too much, civilizations have been shaped by fear—fear of communists or witches or drug dealers or infectious diseases or terrorists—that we give up on our rights and freedom. Those in power use our fears to control us. This fear, though, is one of the most toxic I’ve seen in history. It will silence us.

We are going to go down in history as another blighted, puritanical age. But instead of being condemned in our own time as witches or terrorists we’ll have been condemned for not looking over our shoulders enough, for having said something incorrect, for having hurt someone’s feelings.

Integrity in an Ever Changing Life

Posted in Morality, Perception, Social responsibility with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 6, 2013 by swampmessiah

The question is integrity, how can it be maintained as the self is created?

I’ll tell you now I have no answers. It’s been a long time since I’ve needed answers. I just like what happens when questions are asked.

Whether or not they know it, every parent watches their child create a self. For most of us this seems to happen once, or so we think, and we try to stay true to that self. Usually we follow the general rules of our culture in creating a self and it strongly resembles all the surrounding selves. So we spend endless hours publicly and privately defining the tedious details that make that self me rather than you (“I’m the sort of person who…”). For the most part it’s a thoughtless process, usually reactionary rather than active and seeking. I find it about as interesting as someone’s recipe for doctoring Hamburger Helper.

For the past couple of years I’ve been watching my younger child working through this more consciously than most of us have done, working their way through the possibilities of gender. We could say the process is a transition from female to male but it’s more complex and interesting than that. A lot of the kids, mine included, consider themselves “gender queer”. They are not accepting the either/or mandate of the mass culture. They are not calling themselves male or female, straight or gay, they’re not even calling themselves bi, as many of my generation did. They might consider their identity ambiguous but not necessarily androgynous. As I said, it’s an interesting process. I love the fluidity of it. I consider these kids amorphous but I doubt they would think of themselves that way—they do have an end in mind.

Many years ago I read Robert Jay Lifton’s The Protean Self: Human Resilience in an Age of Fragmentation. His primary interest was the German mind that could adapt to the cruelties of the Nazi era, especially at the camps, and how people can recreate themselves in times of stress.

I took something else out of Lifton’s book. First of all, it was an eye opener for me, the whole idea that we create ourselves. Of course that’s a no-brainer but sometimes we need someone else to draw a circle around something before we can see it. I know this is true for myself—I doubt I’ve ever seen anything before someone else has pointed it out. It could stop there and I could fail to see outside that circle, as too many people seem to do.  Instead, once I began to see that we do indeed create ourselves, I began to see it as an ongoing process. We only pretend it stops at a certain point. Many of us will build up incredible barricades to maintain that illusion. But life changes us. Whether we actively change our self to accommodate life or do so passively, we are no longer the person we were.

I had an intuitive understanding of this long before I read Lifton but he gave form to thought. We are constantly recreating ourselves.

With that in mind: what is integrity and how do we maintain it?

The Greatest Sin

Posted in A Day in the Life, Book commentary, Memoire, Morality, Perception, Social responsibility, Time with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 22, 2013 by swampmessiah

My concept of sin is very egocentric: it’s something that is done to me. I suppose that makes me a Libertarian? (Pardon, that was a random association but it rings true. It’s all about the world doing unto them as they go blustering about with their irresponsible sense of self-importance.)

I wasn’t raised in a religious household. In fact, I don’t think the word “sin” was ever used within my hearing, except for the rare occasions when I was brought to a Lutheran church (usually just dumped at the door by my stepfather) until I was confirmed and had my first communion, after that no one cared if I went or not.

So, really, sin is not a part of my consciousness and never has been.

Until recently.

The awareness of being sinned against began to grow while reading a book that had nothing to say, or the author had nothing to say but went on and on trying to impress us otherwise. It was probably nonfiction and probably written by a journalist who read and interviewed but did not investigate firsthand (Diane Ackerman’s Natural History of the Senses versus anything by Mary Roach). Or it might have been something by Sarah Vowell, who seems to know everything but says next to nothing when she writes.

Or it might have been my observations of my children’s educations (which, by the way, have been significantly richer than mine was, at least until they got beyond high school—college seems as pointless as it ever was, but more necessary for getting a job)…the memories of hours, weeks, and years drifting away in a dull haze of boredom and meaningless information.

Or it might have been the very existence of my day job, installing and warehousing office furniture. Or the existence of my clients confined to their cubicles for decades—doing what? Or any of the jobs I’ve had before this one. If one of my goals is to be conscious and aware of my life passing but what I do most of the day barely engages my mind…

To me, the greatest sin is to waste my time.

Let’s Start with the Image

Posted in Art, Memoire, Perception, Social responsibility with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 21, 2013 by swampmessiah
Drawing number seventy-one

LXXI-71 8”× 6” Graphite, india ink, gesso, chalk, and acrylic on cream Rieves BFK
The edge of whiteness,
the edge of pain,
neither in nor out.
The edge of serenity,
the edge of dark,
neither close nor far.
Up—away from the center.
down—toward the center.
…is struggle or flowing,
neither resolute.
The segments are yours.
The harmony will be yours.

This drawing was intended to close my last post, Why Art? By the time I had finished writing, the image seemed unnecessary and maybe even distracting.

It is something I produced approximately twenty-five years ago and is one of the few pieces of my mature art that could be put into a blog: almost everything I’ve done over the past 30 years is sexually explicit and would bring down the wrath of someone or other (actually, it would probably lead to preemptive censorship in an attempt to derail the expected wrath).

As I stated in that post, I draw, write, and record—but especially the drawing, painting, collage, or whatever you want to call the visual product—to process thought. I think on paper. I think with images. If the images seem muddled and inexplicable and meaningless, that reflects my thought process.

In other words, I really couldn’t tell you what this image “means”. Maybe the words written on the sheet clarify things. I seriously doubt it. And if you can read Chinese, again, maybe that would help clarify things. I have to say that the possibility is laughable. I mean, if the English doesn’t make sense would it follow that something cobbled together from an English/Chinese dictionary (designed for missionaries at that!) would make more sense?

Anyway, it seemed that if I am going to talk about art and comment on art and the need to make it and whatever else might be related to the subject I should put myself on the line and let you see what I’m about.

Don’t allow yourself be distracted by the technique, it’s superficial. I find it’s too easy to be wowed by the verisimilitude and the apparent solidity of the drawing. What’s important: does it make you feel anything? Does it make you think? Does it in any way challenge your perception of the world?

Those would have been my goals if I’d been making art, which I thought I was at the time.

Why Art?

Posted in Art, Memoire with tags , , , , , , , , on September 8, 2013 by swampmessiah

At the time of this writing I am 56-years old. I’ve been drawing and painting for most of that 56 years; I’ve been writing for creative purposes for close to 40; and I’ve been recording poetry and other sounds since 1996.


I’ve been asking myself this question since 1975, when I graduated high school and had to start figuring out what I need to do with my life. I have never wanted to be an artist. Even then I somehow knew that artists had a long hard road to financial success and very little creative freedom if they wanted to make a living of it. Primarily, I knew that I hated drawing or painting when the impetus was someone else’s direction and will: I could only do it when I needed to. I even fail when it’s my own decision to putter around but there’s nothing impelling me to create.

I have never made a living off my art and, in fact, have rarely sold anything (a few pieces for a few dollars, to family or friends, back when I was just learning to paint—1975, 1976, maybe a little later). In the spring of 1983 I had a showing of drawings at the Tweed Museum at UMD and in 1985 was a participant (and instigator, I guess) of a group exhibit of drawing at the Depot, also known as the Duluth Art Institute. In those days art fed my ego and I thought the world needed to see what I had done but I found that I could not do it on my own terms. In public galleries sexuality is generally forbidden and my style was too close to illustration for the commercial galleries. Other than that I’ve pretty much kept it to myself until I started posting my recordings on in 2011.

So this really begs the question: why?

Most of all, it’s been an important question to me because the only image that could hold my attention has been the human form. More often than not, the female form. And beginning in 1983 the sexual form, after which almost all my drawings and paintings were sexually explicit. Why? Was it just a fantasy projection? Some elaborate masturbatory process? Mundane voyeurism, an excuse for looking at pornography? Was it some magical process of enhancing my virility? Was it cabin fever? Was it simply a lack of imagination, a blatant statement of what’s on the mind of the 26-year old male?

I’m sure every one of those possibilities, and more, have played a small part at some time over the decades.

It’s only now that I have no particular attachment to sexuality, as my libido fades into just another memory, that I’m finally able to see my art for what it is (or, in regard to visual art, was, since I’ve moved on to writing and recording and more overtly cerebral, or less evocatively sensual, matters), coming to the conclusion that the main reason I make things is to think them through. Without getting into the quirks of my upbringing and the split personality of our culture, almost all my art comes down to issues of human contact. It’s an art of the flesh, with the senses being an integral part of the mind (or spirit, if that’s more to your thinking). It’s all about contact and sensual awareness, all of which is electrified by the sexual drive. It’s about people touching each other. It’s about crossing personal boundaries and mentally breaking free of cultural restraints. It’s about feeling alive and being awake. It seems the only way I could process any of this is on a piece of paper: that’s where I do my thinking.

On occasion I go into autobiographical detail in my art, most often in my writing, but even then I tend to avoid realism and present it in a mythologized form. This is not to protect anyone’s feelings or anonymity, because I doubt there will ever be anyone paying attention to what I’ve made. I think getting bogged down in social reality inhibits expression and perception. The social details aren’t the things that matter. They clutter the human experience more than they illuminate it. They keep us from seeing the things that almost all of us feel, the details that unify humanity and show that on a certain level we have more in common than not (and more in common with other living beings of all species).

What I’m saying is pretty much a platitude, a cliché, at least within some social circles. I’ve had to spend most of my life coming to those platitudes for myself and I had to find them one crosshatch or brush stroke at a time. If those do not impress you as great tools for thinking, sorry, but they’re the best I’ve had.

My art and creativity have never been directed by goals. There has never been a need to get somewhere or achieve something, at least not outside the needs of the art itself, such as developing a technique. The same has been true of my life. There is experience and discovery and the slow process of learning. Something nagging at the back of consciousness until I’d pick up a pen or sit down at a keyboard to type, and the lines of graphite or the words or the cluster of sounds or whatever medium I’m working in, would begin to give shape to whatever it was buzzing in my thoughts. It might be vague enough that I have to try several times over, until some other buzz becomes louder or I simply run out of interest and energy, and even then not becoming clear to me for many years. It’s still possible that I don’t understand a thing I’ve made. The point is that I was thinking about it. Understanding, like life itself, is transient. What seems obvious one minute might be gone the next.

For me the thought itself is never direct, never more than a question that needs exploring.

I guess for me what is interesting is giving shape to those questions. I don’t need answers. If there was a time in my life when I did I can’t remember it. This might be a flaw in my character or a failing in my upbringing.

I don’t know…I find it liberating.


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