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Art Lessons.


The idea that learning comes from strange places is fairly commonplace wisdom, in truth it comes from wherever we can get it. Slips of paper curled inside of fortune cookies regularly affirm this truth; teachers are all around us (regrettably suffering is our most reliable instructor). Still, as a society we look steadfast to schools and books for education, occasionally to the media, maybe movies, and sometimes art, but rarely. It is the movies that have captured our imagination to an alarming degree(mine too!). We trust that as we comb the screen for experience, we come away not only entertained, but enlightened.

I recently rented one of the films quick to land on the video trash heap. The Juror. I can't say that I thought it was very good, but it got me thinking. The hero, played by Demi Moore, is an artist(there are very few genuine portrayals of artists in film beyond The Horse's Mouth and the Nick Nolte character in New York Stories). In many ways this hero could just as easily have been a banker, but not really, and that is what is so interesting. The underlying action of this thriller is Moore's transformation-- her learning. We meet her as a naive sculptor who thinks that being a juror for a mob trial would be a neat experience. That she is an artist is important because she is used to being both powerful and impotent at the same time: powerful as an individual passionate and observant about life, and able to express it in her work; impotent because she is dependent on what others are capable of perceiving: the dealers, critics, and collectors that control her destiny outside of the studio.

The teacher in this story, played by Alec Baldwin, is also the villain, a hit man appropriately named "the Teacher." It is worth mentioning that Baldwin has no rival when it comes to acting the part of the whispering snake. Here he masquerades beautifully as a philanthropic art collector who recognizes her talent and would free her from what he calls "the insects that run the art world." He sees in her someone who can "move" people, someone whose untapped strength can help him. Yes, he gets her to cooperate by threatening the life of her son and best friend, but he also convinces her that she has the power to pursuade, not just in her art, but also, in this case, a jury determined to convict his boss. Moore proves him right, and much to his strange satisfaction, this star pupil inevitably outsmarts him.

In the end Moore renounces her art for its ineffectual nature. She smashes her sculptures; being an artist has made her a victim, and turned her away from her responsibilities as a provider and protector. Only when she takes matters into her own hands, takes charge, takes control of her circumstances, is she set free. At the same time she hates her own weakness, she also spurns help from the authorities, awakening a newfound primal and spiritual strength. The climax of the film actually gets played out against the backdrop of an ancient ritual in the mountains of South America.

The lesson here takes most artists a lifetime. I never got it from all the warnings that came my way. The message was always that being an artist would be a struggle, that it would be a life of suffering, etc. But they never said why. I couldn't help but notice that the art part always seemed incredibly satisfying, that it was everything else that drove the Van Goghs of the world crazy. As usual, I was only half right. The trick is balancing the power with the powerlessness; the total independence with the complete dependency.

My own situation was that I committed too early to being an artist, having enjoyed so much success at a young age. I was hooked, and could never turn back. My art lessons came in the shadows of the Parthenon and the Piazza del Popolo. We lived with painters, actors, and opera singers. I had a glorious studio, and received lessons from leading artists, including mural instruction from the Futurist Gino Severini just before he died. None of this was what you would call formal, however, so when it came time to get a proper education, I ended up at RISD. It is hard to pinpoint just what I gleened from the experience, but what I did get was the beginning of the lesson Moore learned in the Juror: that what happens after the work is out of our hands.

Which may explain why when I got an opportunity to write about art and artists, I took it, despite the fact that artists who write are generally viewed with suspicion. Nonetheless it restored some power to me as an individual; it gave me a voice, and sometimes even the last word. Furthermore, it made sense to me that the people writing about things should be the people doing them. Reading about art from someone who didn't make it seemed like reading about sex from someone who didn't have it; what could they have to say? After, it wasn't baseball, it was something internal externalized that had to be reinternalized. Writing was another opportuninty for me to learn the big because every artist I wrote about rejoiced so much to have a few measely words approximating what they were up to that it was almost pathetic. I swear, many of them cried to hear someone acknowledge their deeds. I should have known then that there was something wrong.

My oldest son Rory wants to be an artist, and he gets a little of the same support I did when I was his age. Some of the things he makes are so powerful that it scares me, probably because I don't want him to be an artist like his father, as much as it touches me. I try to tell him how important it is for him to believe in himself, to trust what he feels and knows inside him, but it is hopeless. It will make him crazy like all the artists I know who trust the value of their work, but can find little evidence to support it outside their studios.

Is there a solution? Can artists make themselves strong again? Independent again? I don't know. We never get to see what Demi Moore's character does after she triumphs. It has taken me at least thirty years to see that my father was right, that we live in an economic world. As artists we have to start there. We have to take care of business, make our art, and still maintain our integrity. We have to start looking elsewhere, someplace beyond where we are now, for a new lease, a second wind, a renaissance.

My greatest teacher has always been Rory. One time when he was about four or five we were looking for rocks in the gullies carved by the heavy erosion after a strong rain. I was spending the whole time searching for a particular stone when he wisely pointed out what I was missing as a result: all of the other stones.

Addison Parks, Cambridge, 8/96

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