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Stay Hungry: The Gift of Small Humiliations

September 27, 2019


A few years ago, a neighbor and I were wending our way through a small gallery featuring the work of local artists, when we were stopped in our tracks by a large canvas, or board, from which hung a dozen one-gallon freezer bags containing colorful liquids purporting to be health and beauty products: shampoo, conditioner, feminine hygiene stuffs.

My neighbor, who tends toward the positive—even if she must stretch herself into tomorrow to do it—cooed, “What a statement that is! We women really are enslaved to all that!”

“Wait,” I said. “How do you know that’s what the artist means? Maybe this is saying that women are just bags of chemicals, and transparent and shallow, to boot!”

“Oh, be serious,” she said, thinking I was not. “This speaks to me! It says we need to love ourselves and accept ourselves as we are! And it says that we are vibrant, like all the colors in the rainbow!”

“No, come on,” I said, “This seems like something an over-praised fourteen-year-old would show at the junior high. It screams, ‘Look, Mom, I’m an artist!’’

It’s a good thing that modern art is so subjective. We didn’t need to argue over it because “it means whatever you need it to mean,” and I’m self-aware enough to know I needed it to mean something trite.

The creator of the piece, we were informed by a gallery volunteer, was studying at a distinguished art school in Manhattan, and her display was meant to “raise the consciousnesses of women” who were too quick to conform to social norms of beauty.

“Well, if that’s all she’s saying,” I said, crankily channeling Flannery O’Connor, “then to hell with it. Women’s consciousnesses have been raised so high for so long that we’re breathing thin air. We could use some oxygen.”

My friend, who always, always regrets inviting me places, moaned audibly and began to move away. For her sake, I resisted the urge to suggest the display be renamed “Huffer’s Delight,” with an accompanying warning that whiffing tired tropes could be as brain-deadening as inhaling Reddi-Wip.

The gallery lady suggested that art requires an open mind in order to be fully appreciated.

“What it requires,” I shrugged, “are some parameters defining what constitutes art, and what is merely a silly comment to the passing age.” To me the thing seemed lazy, pretentious, adolescent, and unskilled.

My neighbor, by this time, had moved into another room.

“Art should not be restricted,” the woman began, “explorations with nontraditional media helps to expand perspectives, which is a process.”

“I grant you that,” I said, “but shouldn’t the expanded perspectives reach for more than, ‘Look what I did. Ain’t I a stinker?’”

I recalled this episode after a recent conversation with a young writer who was enduring a rare bout of writer’s block. “It happens,” I told him. “Especially when you are prolific, eventually something will fall flat; I once let something of mine go to print and later realized that the allusion upon which I had staked the whole piece really didn’t work, at all. When that happens, it’s humbling.

“It’s liberating, in a way, to know you’re going to have to phone some stuff in,” he emailed a bit later. “It makes you less of a perfectionist, which in the end, probably makes you more creative.”

He may have a point. Nothing quite so humbles as a tumble, and humility is often the deep place where creativity resides. When a successful artist or writer becomes so insulated from criticism that he never comprehends a failure, or when she has gone a decade or two without hearing the word “no” spoken in her direction, she has no friction, thus no traction; things become too easy. You hear an abundance of “yes” and very little “no,” and before you know it, you have nothing to say and no driving need to say it, so you coast on what you’ve done before. Think about it; what was the last great Steven Spielberg film? When was the last time Billy Joel or Stevie Wonder shouted out a new tune you just couldn’t get out of your head?

A gift given is always there, but perhaps a little resistance brings the heat and hunger that keeps one growing, and energetically reaching out. Perhaps the young artist who had filled her bags with product had tumbled a little, but if she was phoning it in, wouldn’t she have benefited from the small humiliation of a “no” from someone challenging her to do better, rather than being validated by a “yes” that sets her up for coasting? Cosseting seldom if ever translates into greatness.

In Rome, I visited a church whose interior was embellished down to the inch. The floors seemed alive with design—walls were covered with images and statues and on the ceiling trompe l’oeil and sculpture were merged so seamlessly that the viewer’s dimensional perceptions were roiled; one could only drop the jaw in wonder and give in to a transcendent sensory shift and elevation. Simply to step outside on to the concrete felt like a crash-landing.

The anonymous artisans who created that otherworldly space were not speaking to a passing moment, but to eternity. Unlike our modern artists, whose every smear or digital sample is met with an emphatic gush of “yes” in a permissive era, these people lived in a difficult society of classes and constraints—civic and church-minded “nos,” where instincts and desires were rarely acted upon. Their energies were instead subsumed into art that involved not only a measure of talent but also a willingness to bend to rules and restrictions, which forced them to continually burnish their skills. Their obedience to the disciplines of craft and their mastery of media were such that half a millennium later their work is still alive, still communicating from age to awestruck age.

Art needn’t be eternal, but shouldn’t it speak to more than passing trends? If it is not seeking to transcend, shouldn’t it at least transport? I once spent ninety transfixed minutes seated before Jackson Pollock’s modern abstract masterpiece, Lavender Mist, quite mesmerized by what I saw there, and (because we are all broken creatures who refer everything back to ourselves) what it spoke to within me.

By comparison, the bags of shampoo spoke their piece in mere seconds, and the rest was silence. A gimmick short on concept and shorter on craft, the display was unable to say, “Behold, something greater than me. Or you.”

That brings us, again, to humility. If you believe in something greater than yourself, however obliquely, you are always a bit of a beggar, which is not a bad thing in creation. It keeps you hungry, and reaching out.