PRINT Summer 1986

Art Trek

OUR SHIP’S LIBRARY HAS many gaps and I cannot be certain until we reach the planet X777, also known as “Earth,” and I am able to use the bibliographical resources there that the material on which I am basing my observations at this prefieldwork stage of the inquiry accurately describes the subject under investigation, the human artist. I wish to add that I normally would have waited for the completion of my assignment before submitting my report; therefore, I here present these preliminary and tentative observations with the qualification that the Bureau has requested the following report against my advice that we wait until the on-site phase of our work is executed. You may recall, Commissioner Yhscis, that my preliminary study of the politicians and statesmen of planet R83, founded on my reading of their treatises of political science and social theory, suffered greatly from the lack of confirming fieldwork evidence and led me to disastrous conclusions. I find it no shame upon myself, then, that the report included erroneous interpretations—for example, that the R83 politician is an altruistic type of his species, one who devotes himself solely to the welfare of his kind.

On the question of the artist on planet Earth I have at hand a number of the documents that humans call “novels.” These books occasionally document the lives of artists I cannot locate in any of the ship’s encyclopedias, but who nevertheless must have been sufficiently prominent to deserve biographical attention. Among these I find the eminent British artist Breasley and a Mr. David Williams, also an artist, and the reporter of Breasley’s life, under the nom de plume of John Fowles (The Ebony Tower; 1974); Mr. Frederick Tarr (Tarr, 1918, by Wyndham Lewis); a Mr. Hunt (The Hunting Years, 1984, by David Kranes); Mr. Julien Mistral (Mistral’s Daughter, 1983, by Judith Krantz); Mr. Gulley Jimson, by himself, under the nom de plume of Joyce Cary (The Horse’s Mouth, 1944); Mr. Charles Strickland (The Moon and Sixpence, 1919, by W. Somerset Maugham); Mr. Claude Lantier, and other artists in his circle (The Masterpiece, 1886, by Emile Zola); and Mr. Janos Lavin (A Painter of Our Time, 1958, by John Berger). On artists included in the encyclopedias and documented in novels I find Moulin Rouge, 1950, by Pierre La Mure, a pathos-ridden chronicle of Mr. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec; Lust for Life, 1934, by Irving Stone, telling of the equally miserable life of the painter Mr. Vincent van Gogh; Man of Montmartre, 1958, by Stephen and Ethel Longstreet, about the drunkard artist Mr. Maurice Utrillo and his friends; The Agony and the Ecstasy, 1958, dealing with Mr. Michelangelo Buonarroti, an artist highly considered by the reporter, Irving Stone; and R. v. R.: The Life of Rembrandt van Rijn, 1930, by Hendrik Willem van Loon.

Commissioner, I have found this a most fascinating instance of the challenges that present themselves to our understanding of the human species. The artist seems to be a protean creature, and so too does his society, which simultaneously observes, elevates, rends, and ignores him. First, according to human language structure, the definition of an artist is one who “does or makes a practice of art,” if I follow correctly the suffix usage and proceed on the model of other such nouns: “chemist,” “botanist,” etc. But from here the matter proceeds with some difficulty, since nowhere have I read of any common agreement among humans as to the exact nature of the thing (the art) that is made or created by the artist. Yet its physical entity—it is usually material—is easily described: for example, objects in various substances (stone, metals, woods, and others) are loosely called “sculptures” (fittingly, these are made by the class of artists they call “sculptors”), and may be made by a process of constructing or assembling, of casting from liquid metals, or of reducing a block of stone or other medium by cutting, chipping, or carving it to some final form the “sculptor” finds interesting.

Most of my reading, however, is about the class of artists who apply paint of various colors to something that goes by the name of canvas, or other flat surfaces, for instance the hard form of paper called cardboard—canvas, however, being their preference. This kind of artist is also known by a subcategory, that of “painter,” though confusingly enough not all painters are considered real artists. There are many subcategories—Sunday painters, house painters, sign painters, copyists. Paintings, the product made by the artist variety of painter, take many forms: some seem to be copies of humans (sometimes unclothed) and other animals, as well as of the terrain of their land, its mountains, agricultural areas, seas, and ponds; many describe piles or mounds of flora, such as flowers and, often, fruits and vegetables. Sometimes these paintings represent incidents from humans’ mythologies and legends, but this is a complicated issue and needs further study (cf. especially The Agony and the Ecstasy, The Horse’s Mouth). In the more contemporary period, paintings have depicted dots and spirals, which tend to deracinate the watcher, or various shapes and forms both geometric and as if organic; sometimes the paint is applied thinly and at others with great thickness. These objects, which neither tell any apparent story nor imitate any apparent form in the human habitat, are called “nonrepresentational” or “abstract” paintings. Humans attach names to various patterns of paintings and classify them in “schools” or “movements”—Cubism, Fauvism, Surrealism, Realism, Social Realism, Expressionism, Abstract Expressionism, and so on, to name only a few. Great controversies surround the arrival of these movements. No sooner has one of them gained ground and won acceptance than it is superceded and cast down (as was its immediate predecessor) and relegated either to a sort of historical limbo or to a niche of honor and commercial value (which always seem to be linked).

Unlike the followers of other professions, the artist seems to require no special education or training, nor does he need certification of competency from any institution or state office. Many do go to school to study, however, though some of them quit, for reasons incomprehensible to me, and when this happens they are not punished but are allowed to continue to proclaim themselves and to conduct themselves as artists.1 This lack of precise professional requirements, and the inexact nature of the art product—the encyclopedias contain vague references to other, more insubstantial kinds of contemporary art besides painting and sculpture, though as yet the reporters of novels have shown little awareness of this development—typify the problems facing us in our understanding of the human category of “artist.”

The artist is indeed a curious and slippery item. The one thing that seems clear about him from these books is that he is invariably male. He does not usually come from any special or elevated origins, though we know of one who was of high station by human class-accounting, the aforementioned Toulouse-Lautrec, a “count.” Others derive from various origins, if rarely from the laboring classes or from the skilled or semiskilled proletariat—yet some have joined these classes’ causes and miseries (van Gogh, Lavin). According to Man of Montmartre, Utrillo, born of a mother notorious as a model and mistress of artists, was raised in depraved circumstances of poverty and alcoholism, but he is a notable exception to the rule of the middle class origin of the artist. For nothing of a sociological nature seems to distinguish most artists from other humans born to middle class circumstances who have continued, through education and the acquirement of skills, to join the professional classes of, for example, engineers, medical doctors, and chemists. However, it is apparent from artists’ behavior, thoughts, and the conflicted way in which they view and are viewed by the world that they form a distinct type (with variations among them) of human. I have included for you, Commissioner, some on-site docuphotographs of a few artists, photos taken during their lifetimes and that I discovered stuck randomly among the pages of these novels. But I can draw no firm conclusions about their nature yet, Commissioner, though I long in this case for a clarity that I am uncertain the evidence will or can provide. For not only is there no objective certification of the profession of artist, but artists themselves do not agree as to who is an artist, and they frequently criticize and say unkind words about their fellow practitioners.2

All the same, most artists seem to share a certain feeling about being artists, and address themselves to the making of their paintings with a fervor at once vague and powerful. The painter Charles Strickland, for example, once a seemingly ordinary stockbroker, one day left his job, children, wife, and home to live in Paris as an artist. This wife was beside herself, imagining that he had run off with “another woman” (a concept difficult for us to comprehend until we learn further about human mores); she sent a friend to fetch him home. This friend (seemingly the reporter, Mr. Maugham, himself, though traveling under a pseudonym, for reasons obscure to me) did indeed find Strickland, but no “other” woman, unless we imagine painting canvases to have been that woman (not so unusual an idea, as we shall later discover). Strickland had simply come to feel that there was nothing he desired other than to be a painter. Neither family tie nor fear of social disapproval mattered as much to him as the act of brushing paint on a canvas. Maugham gives us the artist’s words during his interview with him, and we learn that Strickland had wanted to be an artist ever since childhood but that his father had forced him to “go into business,” saying there was “no money in art.” (The art marketplace should be a subject for further research, as it seems to permeate the art-making activity.)3 All the while he was married Strickland painted secretly, pretending to his wife that he was at his club (a place of gender segregation common in this epoch). He told the reporter,

“I tell you I’ve got to paint. I can’t help myself. When a man falls into the water it doesn’t matter how he swims, well or badly: he’s got to get out or else he’ll drown.”

There was real passion in his voice, and in spite of myself I was impressed. I seemed to feel in him some vehement power that was struggling within him; it gave me the sensation of something very strong, overmastering, that held him, as it were, against his will. I could not understand. He seemed really to be possessed of a devil, and I felt that it might suddenly turn and rend him.

These ideas of compulsion and possession seem characteristic of human artists. After Strickland had lived in terrible poverty for several years, painting constantly, Maugham met him again, only to confirm his original conclusion that the artist was not completely responsible for his behavior:

I got again more strongly the impression of a man possessed. He did not seem quite sane. . . . He lived in a dream, and the reality meant nothing to him. I had the feeling that he worked on a canvas with all the force of his violent personality, oblivious of everything in his effort to get what he saw with the mind’s eye; and then, having finished, not the picture perhaps, for I had an idea that he seldom brought anything to completion, but the passion that fired him, he lost all care for it. He was never satisfied with what he had done; it seemed to him of no consequence compared with the vision that obsessed his mind.

The call of art is stronger, it seems, than that of reason or personal comfort, for I gather that even the renowned Michelangelo, the painter of many illustrations of humans’ myths, felt so. Stone reports that the artist once declared to a patron of these myth-illustrations,

“I work from early morning to dark, then by candlelight or oil lamp. Art for me is a torment, grievous when it goes bad, ecstatic when it goes well; but always it possesses me. When I have finished with a day of work I am a husk. Everything that was inside of me is now inside the marble or the fresco. That is why I have nothing to give elsewhere.”

“Not even when it is to your best interest?”

“My best interest can only be my best work. Everything else passes.”

Mr. Gulley Jimson also was bitten by the painting bug (I’m feeling ever more confident of mastering the human idiom), bitten to the point where his starving wife and family were forced to leave him. And, like Strickland, he suffered for his art. The curious thing is that Jimson’s father had been an artist, once successful but later poor, since the taste for the kind of painting he did had changed and left him stranded with kilos of unsellable canvases. (There seem to be no empirically verifiable qualities universally accepted by the public or by artists concerning a work of art, and what is valued one day is devalued the next. Judgment of an artist’s value may also depend on factors other than the product of his creation.4) You would think that the son would have taken heed of his father’s example and stayed tightly in the normal route of human conduct, but Jimson went to the brush. Let me make clearer the sort of thing the art desire does to a man. This Jimson was so distressed when he suffered an impasse in his art that he became unable to paint. Apparently, this is what he said:

What gave me the horrors was that I couldn’t paint. I was so wretched that I hardly noticed when we sold up and my wife went off, or even when my mother died. It was a good thing she did die, or she would have had to go to the workhouse. And really, I suppose she died of a broken heart at seeing her youngest go down the drain.

Of course I was a bit upset about it. I thought my heart was broken. But even at the funeral I couldn’t tell whether I was in agony about my poor mother’s death, or about my awful pictures. For I didn’t know what to do with myself. My old stuff made me sick. In the living world that I’d suddenly discovered, it looked like a rotten corpse that somebody had forgotten to bury. But the new world wouldn’t come to my hand. I couldn’t catch it, that lovely vibrating light, that floating tissue of color. Not local color but aerial color, a sensation of the mind; that maiden vision.

The sensitive hide of esthetic preoccupation, Commissioner, here houses an obdurate heart. “What is art?” Jimson once asked, “Just self-indulgence. You give way to it. It’s a vice. Prison is too good for artists. . . . ” To this remark a young man named Franklin, himself not an artist, joined in:

Since you said it, what is it all for—what’s the good of art. You can have it [which here does not mean “you can have it,” but that it is an in different matter to the cynical speaker whether it should exist at all]. It’s just another racket [a confidence game; a cheat on the public], it’s a put-up job from start to closing time [it is a conspiracy from the time a shop or goods outlet opens to the time it shuts its doors to the public. Hence art, painting, is a conspiracy against the public from the moment the art-shop opens to the hour of closing].

Here is a remarkable example of how many humans see the motives of artists. Would that the other novel documents were this direct.

Let me say a few more words about Jimson lest you may think I have overstated the case of how shocking the artist is reported to be (which sometimes I fear I may be doing, but then I read over the documents and find corroboration throughout them). Living in penury and having just been released from prison for annoying a collector of his paintings with repeated demands for money, Jimson met with an unexpected kindness on the part of two wealthy patrons of art. (Patrons are kind, helpful persons who give money to artists in return for their paintings, and who on occasion ask artists to make paintings according to specifications.5) They commissioned him to create a painting for their spacious apartment, for which work payment would be made upon completion. No sooner did these gentle people leave for an extended stay in America than Jimson, under deceitful means, moved into their home (unbeknownst to them) and commenced painting one of their walls, a painting they had not requested. And within a matter of days he introduced another artist into the household, a sculptor friend who nearly sacked the place in order to make room for a huge block of stone which he then deconstructed with hammer and chisel to form his image-theme. Presently the home was in great disorder, filth, and ruin, and ruined the more because Jimson pawned its furniture and paintings so as to make room for the sculpture and for his own giant wall painting of the feet of Lazarus (a figure who, in one of the human mythologies, died and was resurrected by one of their divinities), and also to give himself payment for his work and to buy painting materials. You may well grasp from this embroilment, Commissioner, some measure of the ingratitude and, may I add, the selfishness of the artist.

For what else shall I term the nature of a creature who allows nothing but his wishes and desires to guide his life. Mistral’s Daughter, which describes in part the career of the French artist, Julien Mistral, leads me emphatically to speak of the artist’s selfishness. The events of the book took place shortly before one of Earth’s great wars of the modern era, the number-two war, when the terrible events that preceded it crashed fearfully about humans who would soon be enmeshed in a time of universal cruelty and murder. It was at this moment of coming doom that

Julien Mistral was at the height of his powers, at peace with himself at last, and his natural selfishness was only reinforced by the knowledge that never had he painted as well. How could anything that was happening in the world have the slightest importance, when he woke up each morning with an absolute need to stand in front of his easel burning strong inside every cell of his body? No human fate, no current of history had the power to affect him so long as he knew that nothing could stop him from spending the day in the studio.

I must point out that the artist Lavin, as reported by Mr. Berger in A Painter of Our Time, is of an entirely different sort than Mistral; he seems flagrantly involved in the social issues of his time, questioning the role of the artist in different human social orders and always, even to the point of having his chances of success spoiled, troubling his conscience with matters of social justice. He is Mistral’s opposite, yet as such he is another version of self-importance—it is as if his every brushstroke were of political consequence. Can this be? Are artists really infected as it were, like Strickland and Jimson, with some disease that inhibits their ability to live within bounds of reason, order, serenity? Strickland ended his days painting on some tropical island, leaving behind no sense of dissatisfaction with his difficult life, leaving in fact a sense that he was happy with his miserable hut and with the unlettered woman who shared it with him. And Jimson had no remorse for leaving his family or for sacking his patrons’ home, and appeared untroubled by the prospect of further poverty in his infirm old age. These men seemed content in circumstances in which others would find only misery, and if all artists followed this pattern my report would be complete, however much of the psychology of the artist would remain mysterious to those of our planet. Yet one further example should suffice to illustrate the degree to which the painting obsession seems to possess the human called an artist.

Claude Lantier was still a young man when he was willed a small stipend. In the words of the reporter, Emile Zola, he was “already consumed with the desire to paint,” and he “left school immediately . . . and rushed off to Paris.” (This city, it appears, many artists have considered stimulating to their creativity and to their sexual lives.) Lantier worked hard in Paris; in the vicissitudes of his temperament he would paint in ecstatic bursts and then be hurled into stretches of immobilization. His dedication was immense, total. He worked, for example, on one painting “two whole years; for these two years it was the sole aim and end of his existence, sometimes sending him to soaring heights of delirious joy, sometimes plunging him into such depths of doubt and despair that poor wretches breathing their last on beds of pain were happy by comparison.” (If I may interject an observation of my own for a moment, Commissioner, I would say that this Lantier’s behavior would be as comprehensible to you as if I should say that a creature of our world placed itself to mid body in a hyperboiling sulphur bog while leaving the utmost part in the subfreeze of our ice zones merely for the exhilaration of feeling such exceptional extremes.) Lantier found a woman, a certain Christine, with whom to cohabit and to share his sexual life. Their union produced a frail male child, Jacques. Year after year Lantier painted. His masterwork, a painting of naked women lying on the grass with a man clothed in a velvet jacket, brought howls of laughter from the public, and Lantier’s life went from poor to worse. Only rarely did he sell a painting, and soon he discovered that he had used up his income and the principal as well, and was now faced with absolute poverty. Like Strickland, he earned a little money from doing “cheap and nasty Stations of the Cross” he found intolerable.

More incredible events followed in rapid order. When Jacques died, from lack of attention and from improper nourishment, Lantier immediately made a painting of the dead child: “Work soon dried [Lantier’s] eyes and steadied his hand, and the dead body of his son became simply a model, a strange absorbing subject for the artist.” (Would I appear, Commissioner, to go beyond the bounds of objective scientific inquiry should I pronounce this endeavor ghoulish?) Lantier exhibited this depressing painting—deemed so by a human spectator at the show, as well as by myself—in the Salon (a great showplace in which some artists could secure fame and wealth), where it went unnoticed, meriting not even the bursts of derision that the public had once spent on his nude women in the open air. And yet a painting closely resembling his “nude” (as works of art describing unadorned humans are called), a painting obviously derived from Lantier’s reviled masterwork, but in which the figures were clothed, commanded the admiration of the public and of a journalist whose praise of it was soon taken up by others and converted into a litany.

And now, Commissioner, for events so curious that were it not for the novel before me as evidence I would be cautious in relating them to you. Demoralized, facing only poverty and further unhappiness, Lantier spent himself in a painting of his naked wife; hour after hour, day after day he painted her (as I mentioned earlier, artists are fond of painting their fellows and are most of all mad to paint them unclothed), and she began to sense that he no longer cared for her as a sexmate but wanted only that she serve as the model for his painting, which, in fact, had replaced her in his desire. Christine implored him to give up painting, to renounce entirely his art.

“Remember that, Claude; we have our lives to live,” she went on, “so let’s go and live them together, and forget about your nightmares . . . . Let’s live, Claude, and love each other, as we used to do at Bennecourt, remember? . . . I love you. I adore you. I’ll be your slave, I’ll exist only for your pleasure. . . . Do you hear? I love you, I love you, I love you! Isn’t that enough?”

He released his hands from hers, and with a gesture of refusal, answered glumly:

“No, it isn’t enough. . . . I don’t want to go away with you. I don’t even want to be happy; all I want is to paint.”

“And to kill me as well as yourself, and make us end our days in blood and tears! . . . Art alone exists, Art is all-powerful, Art is the jealous god who strikes us both down, the god you worship! Art is your master; it can wipe out the pair of us, and you’ll offer up a prayer of gratitude!”

“Yes. Art is the master, my master, to dispose of me as it pleases. If I stopped painting it would kill me just the same, so I prefer to die painting. . . . My own will doesn’t really enter into it. That is the way things are; nothing else matters, and the world can go to the devil!”

Lantier’s words here sound so remarkably similar to Strickland’s that I wonder whether the two ever met in Paris and exchanged views on the subject. But he finally weakened in the face of Christine’s passion for him; his resistance melted away, and he and she merged physically in the way humans do, giving to their union, as Zola reports, a rhetoric of happy sensation unknown in my experiences of any other living creatures. You might assume, Commissioner, that the story of Claude Lantier found resolve in these events. Yet mark what followed. Christine apparently taunted Lantier.

“Say that painting’s a fool’s game,” she said, with a laugh full of sensual pride.

“Painting’s a fool’s game,” he repeated.

“Say that you’ll never paint again; say you despise it; say you’ll burn all your pictures to please me.”

“I’ll burn all my pictures. I’ll never paint again.”

“And say there’s nobody else but me, and that in holding me as you’re holding me now is the one and only happiness; and say you spit on the other one, the bitch you painted on canvas. Spit then! Go on, spit, let me hear you!”

“There. I spit on her. There’s nobody else but you.”

When Christine woke at dawn she found that Lantier “had hanged himself from the big ladder in front of his unfinished, unfinishable masterpiece.” Here we notice that the artist may at times be taken at his word: some quite literally prefer to die rather than be removed from the painting enterprise. Perhaps, Commissioner, an investigation should be made of the chemical disposition of the paint in relation to the biochemical sympathies of the painter, for there may be an addictive fission between the two, and separation from paint may cause a malfunction in the artist’s neurosystem leading him to delusions and self-murder.

I am reminded here of the ways in which other artists are reported to have taken or attempted to take their own lives. The inclination appears quite common. For one, a certain Abel, the sculptor who accompanied Jimson in the invasion of his patrons’ home, had attempted once to drown himself and once to hang himself. “‘But when his neck was beginning to stretch and just before he lost consciousness, he had an idea for a piece of modern gothic and knocked on the wall and the neighbors came in and cut him down.’” In the instance of Vincent van Gogh, the issue is not even that he was cut off from painting but that he no longer could paint according to his desire: “How stupid of me,” his reporter, Mr. Stone, quotes him as saying, “to remain alive if I can’t paint the way I want to paint.” And in keeping with his own reasoning, he shot himself while painting some crows in a cornfield. In killing himself, he was simply following the logic of his unreason, for he seems to have been clearly mad (like most artists), as was confirmed by a medical doctor who examined him. The doctor explained to van Gogh, "No artist is normal; if he were, he wouldn’t be an artist. Normal men don’t create works of art. They eat, sleep, hold down routine jobs, and die.’’ As further evidence, Commissioner, that living outside the pale of reason must be a formula for being considered among the class of artists, I offer the words of the renowned artist Rembrandt van Rijn:

You ask me why I work like a madman? Very well I will tell you. Because I am a little crazy. . . . I know that I am not an ordinary, well-balanced and respectable member of society and I know that no matter how hard I try, I never shall be.

Not only do artists have no common agreement as to who they deem an artist, as I remarked earlier, but they seem to have differing ideas as to how to make art and what the activity means to them. In a conversation reported by Stone, between Toulouse-Lautrec and van Gogh, Lautrec claimed that he painted things he hated and van Gogh that he, on the contrary, painted only things he loved, while the artist Georges Seurat insisted that neither love nor hate entered into the matter, for “art has to do with abstract things, like colour and design, and tone. It should not be used to improve social conditions or search for ugliness. Painting should be like music, divorced from the everyday world.’’ How different is this notion from that of the emigre artist Janos Lavin, who lived entirely with the conviction that the artist should fight for social change and that art should not be made for the consumption of the rich—whom Jimson, for example, saw as the soul of healthy traffic between the artist and his vision. (Lavin sounds different from the other artists we read about in these novels, but this is a reckless conclusion to draw, for finally he resembled them in his desire to do nothing else but paint: ”You work in order to be able to die painting.“) A friend of van Gogh’s, and an artist who himself would become famous by going, much as Strickland did, to live and paint among tropical islanders, would agree with the ideas of art held by Seurat, who painted tiny dots. According to Stone, Paul Gauguin insisted that ”painting is colour, line and form; nothing more. The artist can reproduce the decorative in nature, but that’s all.“ The English painter Frederick Tarr (yet another who went to Paris to paint) said of his own art that its character ”is ascetic rather than sensuous, and it is divorced from immediate life.’’

These remarks only begin to express some of the contradictory notions and desires of artists that confront us in our study. There are others, Commissioner, I warrant you will find bewildering. I have my favorites, which I hope will amuse you by their rhetorical vagueness and by the impassioned self-seeking they manifest. Michelangelo, for example, supposedly “was after absolute balance, perfection of line, curve, volume, mass, openness, density, elegance, the profundity of endless space. He aspired to create a work of art that would transcend the age through which he had lived.’’ Picasso told his fellow artist Utrillo, according to the Longstreets, that ”art is a lie that makes us see the truth. The artist has to convince others of the truth of his lies.’’ Mr. Kranes reports that Hunt, described as “an American,” and a Realist painter, was also after the “truth.’’ These artists are very modest, are they not, Commissioner, in their humble aspiration to see or to fasten truth on some few yards of cloth. Perhaps they use the word ”truth“ in some metaphorical way, as I suspect they are speaking, as they often tend to do, of some empirically unverifiable quality, in this case of a ”spiritual“ truth. For some, the truth is simply not enough to wish for. Lautrec explained in passing to Utrillo’s mother, over lunch, that ”an artist is given to specks of true inner illumination, to bomb bursts of ecstasy. Only in art can one avoid a terrifying sense of the personal Arctic, a universal emptiness, spiritual burial, the spearing to death of the passions.’’ That this idea was typical of Lautrec I gather from pronouncements of his cited by another reporter, La Mure: “Art indeed was greater than life. Only Art stopped Time.’’ Michelangelo appears to have thought much the same, according to Stone: ”Man passes. Only works of art are immortal.’’ Who knows how many other artists have believed, or have wished to believe, this astonishing notion, predicated, obviously, on humans’ conceptions of the time continuum and of the duration of matter (paint, canvas, and their very planet itself in its galaxy).

I leave you, Commissioner, with the most telling claim of all, one that I can imagine you and the members of the Bureau receiving with a delight that itself is a reward for my present labors. Jimson once revealed what I am, at this date, forced to suspect lies at the bottom of every artist’s belief in his creative mission. Let him speak:

Even the worst artist that ever was, even a one-eyed mental deficient with the shakes in both hands who sets out to paint the chicken-house, can enjoy the first stroke. Can think, By God, look what I’ve done. A miracle. I have transformed a chunk of wood, canvas, etc., into a spiritual fact, an eternal beauty. I am God.

I think Commissioner, that this self-declared apotheosis must surely rank the speaker for candidacy among the self-delusional of the galaxy, and as such I leave him to your able review and to the study of those more trained about humans than I.

I do have a few additional, concluding remarks, if not conclusive ones. All of these novel reports, regardless of the period covered, show us the same incredible kettle of obnoxious artists bobbing about in their steamy longings. Should the information be correct, we must be grateful to the novel reporters for their accuracy and integrity in documenting the truth about artists, who, after all, intractable though they may be, are their fellow humans. Yet while I remain grateful, and while I try to keep myself, for the sake of pure, disinterested learning, free of prejudice, I must note that I find something suspect about the way all these records add up. For one thing, they are surprisingly intimate; were there voice capturers—humans call them tape recorders—under the artists’ energy-restoring slabs that go by the name “bed”? Again, the reporter Irving Stone quotes seemingly at first hand the lives of two artists, Michelangelo and van Gogh, who lived hundreds of years apart; all evidence of Earth life indicates that humans live not much longer than 118 Earth years. Should I suppose that two different Stones were born into the breed of artist-reporters? Perhaps this reporting specialization is passed along from generation to generation? Another query presents itself: did these reporters attach themselves to their subjects (or were they in some way assigned to them?) throughout the artists’ entire lives—even to the very moment of their deaths—and did they transcribe their every word, even in their most intimate moments? This truly presents a marvel of research, one that my fieldwork hopes to explore.

So much for the technical aspects of my suspicions about the fidelity of these documents. To press farther, let me cite only a sample of the other questions that rise from their pages. How can a gender be excluded or incapable of creating art, as these reports seem to indicate? Nowhere do I read of female artists, and this is indeed curious, since the female of the species, as many of our investigators have reported, is capable of participating in nearly all of the other human enterprises and professions. Something is clearly being omitted from the documents—discussion of the male’s genetic susceptibility to being an artist, I suspect, which the reporters may purposely suppress in order not to affront the male gender by illuminating its proneness to unreason of the kind these documents so frequently report. Another thought, Commissioner. Artists, and the point is obsessively insisted upon by these reporters, have no happiness in their amatory life. It would seem that second to their passion for making art, they care only to be miserable—indeed, drive themselves to be wretched—in their “love lives.” This would appear a special attribute of artists, according to the reporters, yet as we have seen in file after file in the Bureau’s archives, this unhappy condition is found in human geologists, politicians, and even in writers of reports. Perhaps the novelists are unbalanced in this aspect of their investigation. In our land (dear Ferrous Oxide!) we rightly prize our verifiable maps of lives, thoughts, and deeds, maps that all may comprehend (should we fracture ergwumps by chrytwils do we not forever arrive at .336.24?), and that remain true at all times; dare I broadcast my doubts that the Earth documents on artists are as reliable? These words from Earth may not be the last word.

It is odd, too, that the artist, reportedly so mad, so lunatic, so incapable of functioning in almost every natural sphere, has the ability to concentrate, over long periods of time, years even, on making his paintings and fulfilling his wish to make something beautiful or ugly. Does not this powerful span of attention suggest either purposeless imbecility (the condition of those who merely doodle endlessly) or an exceptional ability to do what most humans value highly—the mastering of a task through sustained effort? And if the former, why are not all artists housed in the same institutions where many of the planet Earth’s insane are banished? That the creatures described in these records were allowed to pursue their individualistic whims and social vagrancies speaks either for the forbearance and kindness of the Earth people, or perhaps for some deep need in them.

I also wonder why any humans reading these reports, and forewarned by the lessons they contain, would wish to be an artist. What might be the lure of such a damaged life? And when children show ambitions or signs of becoming artists, how can their engenderers, with the evidence of the novels at hand, permit them to follow that miserable path? Let me extrapolate from these documents another startling paradox which strongly undermines my willingness unreservedly to recommend the evidence at hand, and makes me further convinced that nothing short of a total fieldwork investigation will do justice to the study. It would seem that the products of artists—paintings—have significance for these humans, despite the fact that they consider the artist himself insane. For all through the ages the reports agree that ordinary humans are intrigued by paintings, and not merely to laugh at them or to study them as artifacts of the disordered mind. On days when humans are not at their labors they often form long processions to indulge in some pleasure they feel in viewing paintings. Yet as I say, human reporters regard the artist as outside their tribe, and would not wish themselves or their children to be like them. And there is a final twist. According to the documents, there seems to be a complex equation between the authenticity of the product called art and the item called money. In the art marketplaces the sign that a painting is highly valued is shown by the price in money placed on it; the higher the price, the more the painting is valued. You would assume, Commissioner, that the artist who gathers large amounts of money for his paintings would be similarly valued, since his work has been rated highly. Yet—and here is the astonishing dish—an artist who is poor is often considered an authentic artist, while an artist who is rich is suspected of mediocrity and sham. More contradictory still, it is the rich artist who receives attention at dinners and other events of social companionship, where he meets with other human types of success. The artist who is poor and unsuccessful, despite the authenticity of his work, is generally reviled and left to the dreary fringes of life (though even he—especially he—may be assigned a reporter to document his entire life!).

Should these novels be all the evidence I had of their lives, I would never wish to meet artists except as a curiosity of the universe. But I shall go into the field and examine firsthand their products, whether housed in the zoos of the inanimate (museums) or in the places they speak of so frequently, the galleries or art retailers, where the products are exchanged for money. I will enter their abodes and work zones, though I admit to some apprehension about this part of the study, for there is no telling what bizarre activity they might be engaged in while I visit. Perhaps (and this seems a statistical probability, based on the evidence of the documents) one will kill himself before my eyes! That would be horrible. But there might be some fortunate conclusion from this cruel occasion. I could take one of the artist’s pictures, could touch it, smell it, and weigh it, and bring it home. And then, Commissioner, we would have what humans all dream about even if they scorn it, art, on our planet.

Frederic Tuten is a writer of fiction. He is a professor and the director of the graduate program in English and creative writing at the City College of New York.



1. Both Julien Mistral and Charles Strickland avoided education in favor of self-instruction.

For years now [Mistral had] been pounding at his painting as if he were a convict in chains, given a mighty rock and a small hammer and ordered to reduce the rock to dust. He was engaged in the struggle that had become his only goal from the day he had walked out of a class in the École des Beaux-Arts of the Sorbonne and decided to paint his own way, to paint from his feelings and not from his brain. In the four years since that day, Mistral had found that it was almost impossible to turn off his head, to escape from the narrow prison of French education, to go freely beyond the classicism that has always dominated the core of French painting. He was consumed with the attempt to get the paint on canvas without the rule of his trained French brain.

And Maugham notes that Strickland’s refusal to accept formal training impeded his progress:

So far as I could make out, he painted with great difficulty, and in his unwillingness to accept help from anyone lost much time in finding out for himself the solution of technical problems which preceding generations had already worked out one by one. He was aiming at something, I knew not what, and perhaps he hardly knew himself.

2. Gulley Jimson summarized his feelings about one prominent artist as follows:

Gauguin, who is Gauguin? You don’t mean that French painter who did dead dolls with green eyes in a tin landscape. I couldn’t paint in his style unless I became a Plymouth brother with the itch, and practiced on public house signs for fifteen years.

Later he says of artists in his patron’s collection,

Usual modern collection. Wilson Steer, water in watercolor, Matthew Smith, victim of the crime in slaughtercolor; Utrillo whitewashed wall in mortarcolor; Matisse, odalisque in scortacolor; Picasso, spatchcock horse in tortacolor;Gilbert Spencer, cocks and pigs in thoughtacolor; Stanley Spencer, cottage garden in hortacolor; Braque, half a bottle of half and half in portercolor; William Roberts, pipe dream in snortercolor; Wadsworth, rockses, blockses, and fishy boxes all done by self in nautacolor; Duncan Grant, landscape in strawtacolor; Frances Hodgkin, cows and wows and frows and sows in chortacolor; Rouault, perishing Sa int in fortacolor; Epstein, Leah waiting for Jacob in squawtacolor. All the most high-toned and expensive.

Mistral condemns his contemporaries as follows:

Even the bugger Matisse, even he is stuck in chess playing, not painting. He uses the contrast of two colors to create a third color—one that just isn’t there, damn his eyes—why doesn’t he call himself a mathematician and be done with it? Or an interior decorator? And as for that damned acrobat Picasso and his friend Braque, gray, boring, imitative, dreary Braque, the two of them are no better—chasing Cézanne’s bullshit about reducing all nature into a cone, a square and a circle, beating it right down into the ground until they drain out all the life, all the air—to the lowest circle of hell with all of them!

3. Art “retailers” have been known, at least in one instance, to commission artists to paint according to market specifications. According to David Kranes, Mr. Suskind, who ran the Karpus Gallery, New York, commissioned Mr. Hunt to make paintings of apartment-house doormen and interiors of elevators at a guaranteed profit to the artist of $100,000 (exclusive of the artist’s expenses for paint and canvas). There was an additional stipulation: the artist could not reveal himself as the maker of the paintings. Credit for them would go to an actor the gallery had hired. Mr. Suskind further instructed Hunt, “Please, pal, remember: this stuff has all gotta be for rich shit heads. We want commercial loneliness. Commercial, urban alienation. Check?” In an unusual display of self-effacement for an artist, Hunt executed the paintings, which were promptly all sold, proving that success may be visited on an artist who has a practical supervisor to guide him.

4. To show how few “objective” factors contrive to decide the value of a work of art, I offer you the instance of Janos Lavin, an artist neglected and powerless. One day, some months after Lavin’s art had been rejected for exhibition by the influential Malvern Gallery, he was suddenly invited to have a “show” there. The reporter, John Berger, explains,

Picture-dealing when concerned with the comparatively unknown artist is always a gamble; sometimes a whole show sells out; sometimes not a single work is bought. Consequently a k ind of superstition, a kind of magic of success, holds some sway over the decisions of even the hard-boiled. Michel [a powerful artist who exhibited at the Malvern Gallery, and a friend of Lavin’s] was highly successful; therefore his tips might be so, too. Or, if the directors of the Malvern Gallery did calculate, they probably calculated that it was worth pleasing Michel by giving his friend a show, even if it flopped. I insist that the decision had nothing to do with Janos’ paintings as such, for the simple reason that the same gallery had unequivocally rejected examples of his work a few months before.

5. The Agony and the Ecstasy deals extensively with the artist/patron relationship, which is often imperfect. Contemporary painters are generally churlish, it seems, toward the collector-patron. In A Painter of Our Time, Berger recounts a meeting between the painter Lavin and a wealthy collector of modern art, Sir Gerald Banks. It is clear here that the artist is malcontent, lacking the grace to defer to his superiors and left to making meddlesome quarrels designed to antagonize and offend.

“The collector, he is no hero. That is why you''—Janos put his hand towards Banks—”you have to pretend and make fairy-tales about the risk in looking at the work of art. The modern collector, he cannot deserve the reflected glory. He is no hero. . . . Why do you never commission anything?"

“I believe the artist works better if he has complete freedom. We have learnt that now.”

“You think so? You do not think it is because you know you cannot inspire him? Because you know you do not share ideas with him. Except ideas about form. You do not commission him because you have no subjects. The artist is unemployable—that is why he is free. No one really knows what he should be used for. And so he makes exercises, he makes pure colours and pure shapes—the abstract art—until it has been decided what he can do. But do the collectors help to decide? They cannot. I will tell you. Once the patron was like a man with a hawk on his wrist to hunt the truth for him. Now he is like an old lady who keeps canaries.”