Monday, January 23, 2012

What if no one cares?

I just watched a documentary about the artist Alice Neel on Netflix. I had been introduced to Neel when I was writing an art history course, and I’d found her paintings gripping -- and that wasn’t even in person but on a computer. So I was eager to learn her story and see more of her work. It turned out to be as inspirational as it was informative.

Alice Neel was born in January 1900. She grew up in a time when (with rare exceptions) women simply weren’t artists, especially poor women. She did manage to go to a design school for women, where she noted that the students were women but the deans were always men. Neel made more than one bad choice when it came to relationships, but probably for a woman of her talents, a good relationship was hard to find. Women couldn’t even vote when she was born. A woman with dreams of her own would have been a nuisance.

She lost one baby to disease, and her artist husband took off with her next child (a daughter); the impoverished Neel had no recourse but to let her go. Later she had two sons whom she raised on her own. Throughout her trials, Alice Neel painted. She poured her own pain onto the canvas, but she also looked outside herself to record the lives around her. She painted portraits with a psychological intensity.

Alice Neel’s work was ignored by the artistic world for most of her lifetime. She painted portraits at a time when abstract painting was considered de rigueur for serious artists. She wasn’t politically astute when it came to rubbing shoulders with the “right” people, and she didn’t seem to give a damn about trends. She was as true to her art as an artist can be. She believed that “man is the measure of all things” and she believed in what she was doing. She felt it important to capture the individuality of a person, not to typecast her subjects. She captured something of their essence and put it on the canvas.

In 1974 (ten years before her death) Neel’s work was shown in a retrospective exhibit at the Whitney Museum. In her 70s, she had finally begun to get the recognition she deserved. Yet her faith in herself never seemed to waver.

As I watched the unfolding of her story as documented by her grandson Andrew, I couldn’t help but draw some comparisons to the writing world. So often students and writers in my workshops want to know if what they’re doing is any good. They yearn for some sort of confirmation from the larger world. I am not immune to this desire. None of us wants to struggle in anonymity. We’d like to believe that what we’re doing has some value. But we should remember that we may not always get that recognition when we want it.

Some writers are one hit wonders. Some start getting accolades at a young age and go on to have wonderful careers. Some, like the brilliant Zora Neale Hurston, get a few good breaks and then wind up dying penniless, buried in an unmarked grave, only to be rediscovered years later. Others don’t hit their stride until later in life. E. Annie Proulx was almost 60 when she won a Pulitzer for The Shipping News. And there are probably some great writers whose talents will never be known outside their own families.

You can try to manipulate the course of your career. You can befriend the right people, use the power of positive thinking, and consult an astrologer. Those things might work. If they don’t, however, you can follow Neel’s example. Stay true to your art. Do whatever task the universe hands you. The truth is you have to be willing to “fail” -- you have to be willing never to make it. You have the desire to write because you have something to say. If no one responds, it’s frustrating -- sometimes heartbreaking -- but you keep going. It’s not your job to judge the merit of your work. You just do it to the best of your ability. You keep learning, you keep practicing, you make a commitment. If Alice Neel had decided to believe the cognescenti, if she had abandoned her vision, we would not have the incredible body of work that she has left us.

Here are some prompts to help you stay true to your art this week:

Write a blurb for yourself! Be effusive. What makes your work (even if you haven’t finished it yet) unique, outstanding, worthy of the critics’ notice?

What are your obsessions? What do they stem from? What is your gift to the world?

Who is a writer or artist you admire? What was their path to success? Was their journey smooth? What did they sacrifice? What are you willing to sacrifice?

Who is your ideal audience? Find one or two people who will be that audience.

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