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,
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
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.