Camera obscura: On creating art

I’ve been thinking about things I learned in art classes or my own readings regarding art; insights from my own 30 years of paying the rent through art sales. And 30 years is to be respected because with arts, you don’t just come in, stamp your pay stub, do what is mandatory and get your check at the end of the week. To make money in the arts you have to come up with something new, funnier, cooler, better, more insightful, more heartbreaking, EVERY DAY, because you are only as good as your last piece. I’ve heard it a hundred times, people talking about artists, even great artists who just weren’t making the cut and were now on the way out. And that shows you another terrible thing about making a living with art. Not only does it have to be good, but sometimes it doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad as long as the public loves it. Being marketable is both a gift (money) and a curse, ( imagine the artists that had nine successful seasons on The Jeffersons, and what their artistic and personal self-esteem was left after that!)

These and other things are especially hard now that I’m unable to create art. Except in my head: little tidbits, little secrets that truly no one knows. Secrets like many of the great masters may have traced everything they did. Caravaggio, Rembrandt, van Eyck. They all traced. Holbein, Diego Velazquez, they sat in the velvet dark of a murky tent and sketched the outside world that shined in through a small lens, or bounced off a curved mirror. Or, like a pinhole camera, just projected into their tiny dark rooms through a little hole. Canaletto, Gainsbor-ough, Vermeer. They sat there in the dark for days, weeks, tracing the building or model in the bright sunlight outside. Sometimes they even painted colors straight over the projected colors, matching the shine of a piece of armor or fabric as it fell in projected folds. Camera obscura is Latin for “dark chamber,” or “dark cave.” These were the first cameras, using paint instead of silver oxide. As an artist myself, I’ve always felt that the Great Masters were trying to anticipate the camera, capturing greater and greater detail and accuracy. In the 19th century, when cameras were actually invented, artists, to keep working and getting paid, were forced to go in new directions with their work. How did something feel at that moment of time, how by distorting an image they could bring greater clarity to it, etc. and they created the beginning of Expressionism and Impressionism?

I’ve also been reading a lot of Plato. Plato said: “He who approaches the temple of the muses without inspiration in the belief that craftsmanship alone suffices will remain a bungler and his presumptuous poetry will be obscured by the songs of the maniacs.” I love that! “The Songs of the Maniacs” will be one of the chapters of my book I’m writing, or maybe even its title.

I’m beginning to understand some of these ancient sects that claimed they could work miracles, walk on water, heal the sick, or raise the dead. They all claim that they could do this because they tortured themselves. They call this Asceticism. Their idea is that the visionary must live apart from the normal world, and reject pleasure and comfort and conformity in order to connect with the divine. They looked at pain as a spiritual tool, pain and deprivation. The Buddhist monks sitting on roofs, fasting and sleepless until they reach enlightenment, isolated and exposed to the sun and the wind. Like the Christian Saint Simeon, who stood and rotted on his pillar, the standing yogis or the Native Americans who wandered fasting on vision quests or hung on hooks through their pectoral muscles in smoky teepees all for enlightenment. And Saint Veron-ica, whose only food was the five orange seeds, eaten in memory of the five wounds of Christ and all the women who starve themselves, in the nineteen century, who fasted to death out of piety.

Lord Byron, who fasted and purged and made his heroic swim of the Hellespont a romantic anorexic, Moses and Elijah who fasted to receive visions in the Old Testament. English witches who fasted to cast their spells, whirling dervishes, twirling to exhaustion for enlightenment. ”Purification of the Soul,” until this last century, purification could come from only one way, burning. You purified water, places, bodily wounds, by fire. No wonder that’s what they believed was the way to “purify” your soul, punishment, abstinence, hard work or meditation, extremes of physical conditions. A “burning” of the soul.

So where am I going with all this? Maybe people have to suffer, really suffer, before they can risk doing what they really love.

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