Odd Neck: Art in a Vacuum
By: Erica Szuplat, May 23, 2012
A friend of a friend proposed a theory about the Cape arts scene at a bar on a recent Saturday night.
It roughly went like this: the high cost of living on the Cape forces artists to maintain more than one job, thus they can’t be “true” artists.
He envisions the true artist subsisting solely on income from work that is the direct result of her unadulterated creative expression. Holed up alone, she works furiously in her own secluded studio.
It’s tempting to accept such a neatly bound idea, and it can be fun to debate these stereotypes over some beers.
It seems that the heart of the issue, though, is not whether the Cape is too expensive a place for artists to live, but whether we subscribe to certain ideas about artists in the first place.
To thine own self be true
In my friend’s scenario, the “true artist” maintains a passionate existence in her uncompromising cocoon, creating art devoid of influence from the outside world.
Her “true art” arises from a source none other than her own, not unlike Athena springing forth, fully armed, from the head of Zeus.
The implication is that outside influences negate true art. If this influence comes in the form of a paying gig, it’s so much the worse.
Of course, such an artist is a mythological creature, never having existed in the first place.
Art History 101
Historically speaking, we’d be out a boatload of art if that were our criteria. An obvious example is the Sistine Chapel, painted by Michelangelo and Botticelli, commissioned by the Pope.
Anyone who has ever enrolled in Art History 101 can tell you that some of the most famous works of art around the world were created under such a patronage system.
Indeed, many of the artists whose work we recognize in museums today took on so-called “commercial” work.
Paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe, Edward Hopper and John Singer Sargent grace the walls of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, but both O’Keeffe and Hopper engaged in magazine work (in Vanity Fair and Scribner’s, among others).
At the time, this was considered a respectable source of income; in fact, some of the MFA’s most valuable works are Sargent’s commissioned portraits and murals.
Artists under the influence
At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that artists here on the Cape—and elsewhere—thrive by living fully in the world, not removed from it.
All artists are inspired by the world around them, especially their relationships with other artists. Van Gogh and Gauguin in Arles and George Sand and Chopin in Majorca come immediately to mind.
Artist colonies such as P-town exist for a reason, and artists have always drawn from the landscapes and lives around them for creative expression. From these very interactions, these outer influences, their creativity is sparked.
If artists did live in solitude, I wonder, what would they create? And who would buy their art?