The Battle for the Artist’s Soul

fran libowitz

This Fran Lebowitz quote seems quite offensive today, where art has been so thoroughly democratized. I don’t subscribe to this perspective, of course. But there is a grain of truth in it. I would only add, for those interested in the serious pursuit of excellence in the realm of realism, that you approach the endeavor the way a monk might pursue the study of scripture, with daily, ritualistic, tireless and bold effort. On the other hand, as Dorie blithely repeats like a mantra, in Finding Nemo, all you really need to do is “just keep swimming.”

young sculptorMy wife is the greatest “bad singer” of all time. She sings and paints with wild abandon. But I truly love it when she sings and paints because I believe self-expression, on any level, is one of the healthiest things a person can do for their psychological well being. In fact, in our household, it is forbidden to discourage anyone from singing or creating, no matter how inconvenient or annoying it may be.

My father was considered a great teacher, but he did harbor a secret disdain for the amateur. It is arguably a very delicate line to walk. My dad was very rigid about what it took to be a professional artist. One favorite word of his comes to mind: “Perspicacity!” He believed it took hundreds of hours of figure drawing, classical training and a lifetime in the studio, with intense, academic study of values and color theory to be a successful artist. He considered abstract art “a lot of fun” but a meaningless distraction from realism. Nor did he regard highly a casual relationship with realism.

The Fran Lebowitz quote above prompted Cessily Wotring Thalacker, my fourth grade art teacher, to reference a visit she paid to my father in his studio at the venerated Scarab Club at the heart of Detroit’s cultural center, back in 1969. I can say without hesitation, my two earliest artistic influencers were my dad and Miss Minda, which was her name at the time. They were polar opposites when it came to what it meant to be an artist. Miss Minda believed realism was way over rated and encouraged me to explore in a more personal way, to discover my own voice. It was a battle for my soul as an artist. I’m still not sure if there ever was a clear winner. But the following is my fantasy version of how that scene between the two might have played out.


Miss Minda

Hi, Mr Maniscalco, I’m Miss Minda, your son’s art teacher at school. I wanted to speak with you in person because I’ve noticed Robby seems a bit uptight, engaging in the work we’re doing in class.

Joe Maniscalco

Is that right?

Miss Minda

I can tell he has a lot of passion and high visual acuity. He can draw anything I put in front of him. We’ve been working on developing a more creative approach. But he tells me you think painting one’s feelings is “a lot of poppy cock.”

Joe Maniscalco

Yes, that sounds about right.

Miss Minda

I see. Well, I’ve been trying to get him to relax and use his imagination a bit more.

Joe Maniscalco

Why’s that?

Miss Minda

Well, I think developing the imagination is essential to becoming a true artist. I teach a very personal, experimental process where the student is encouraged to find his or her own voice.

Joe Maniscalco

Okay, let me stop you right there, miss — what was your name again?

Miss Minda

Minda. Cessily Minda.

Joe Maniscalco

Well Miss Minda, do you know who I am?

Miss Minda

Yes, of course. You’re Robby’s father.

Joe Maniscalco

Yes, and I don’t appreciate you putting crazy ideas about “finding his own voice” into my son’s head. You people really get my goat. You see all this art on the walls? I sell this art. I do this for a living, for your information, a damn good living. Ever hear the expression, “Those who can, do. And those who can’t, teach?”

Miss Minda

Yes, I have but I’m not talking about art as a career. I’m talking about the soul of the artist itself.

Joe Maniscalco

Well, I’m not a religious person. So I don’t know about his soul. But I do know art is a business, maybe a family business, as long as you don’t go muddying the waters with your radical mumbo jumbo.

Miss Minda

Excuse me, Mr Maniscalco. I’m also concerned about Robby’s psychological well being. He’s very high strung and I think if he could use his art as an outlet to express a little of what’s going on in that wonderful mind of his, he would be a much happier person.

Joe Maniscalco

You’ve got a lot of nerve, traipsing in here, telling me what’s good for my own son. Just who do you think you are?

Miss Minda

Excuse me, Mr. Maniscalco, I am your son’s very concerned art teacher, trying to do you a favor by coming here to discuss your son’s emotional well being. Surely, you must understand art is not a one size fits all endeavor. Our approaches may be quite different but they’re not mutually exclusive. What’s wrong with a little self expression? What harm would it do him to lighten up and exercise his creativity? I’m a little surprised, to be honest, that you are so rigid in your thinking. It seems clear to me now, you have poisoned Robby to view self expression as somehow wrong. He tells me you are extremely critical of his efforts at home. He clearly is afraid he will never measure up to your definition of success. I happen to think he is precious art spirit and given a little encouragement from you, there’s not telling what he could accomplish.

SLAM!

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