Here are three characters from a favorite novel of mine by Jean Giono, The Joy of Man’s Desiring. I haven’t read it in some time, but I think it often. Jourdan and Marthe are a childless old couple existing on Grémone Plateau with day to day drudgery and barely tepid emotional disturbance toward either direction on the happiness meter. Then one night Jourdan gets the urge to plow his field beneath starry skies. A saunterer approaches from the south. “The sky looks like Queen Anne’s Lace,” he says to Jourdan. They share a pipe and joy begins. Marthe catches on early in the novel and with Bobi’s goad, takes a sack of the surplus grain and feeds it to the birds, who like Bobi, come out of nowhere to visit a place nobody ever wants to visit. Despair.
A mystery novel without a whodunit. A novel of mystery. Worth reading if you can execute your Kindle one morning and go lay down in a field with the deer ticks.
Last night I went to a couple art shows and fell asleep. The business of art. Without music. Without unchoreographed dance. Like drinking hot beer on a hot day when you’re not even thirsty. One was a BFA exhibition at the college. The other a printmaking show at Zink Shirts. My wife and I went to both, and afterwards I sat in the driveway ranting for five minutes on the sorrows of a culture that is so morbidly dead, it cannot even make the joy of art manifest to desirous and wanting people.
We don’t know how to live. Careful steps. A quiet view, and then on to the next. Nobody says a thing about it. Shhh. The graduates are learning early on how to spill the soul to wipe it up quickly before it stains the carpet. Inspired work at both shows no doubt. That is how art flows through and is presented by the art-maker. But inspiration and gladness stops there, before the canvas is dry. The young people had a better crowd, more smiling faces, doting grandmothers, encouragement, awards and catering. They’ll want to make art professionally, but more likely search for a creative paid position in life, and never ever make a leap or a peep at a juried art exhibition, or when stepping into a gallery, or swan diving off a tall building. Only in the 21st century can art become something this sad.
My friend Dan is unwittingly beating with a stick the cultural tendency to kill art with decorum. One-track minded, he will succeed. He goes to Manhattan, an Oswego bear with primal humanity, to teach a wild lesson to these uptight, unartful, millionaire gallery dandys. Another friend, Eric, spent his Friday afternoon grinding a stone up into some shape a wine-soaked Mt. Olympus decorator would purchase for Zeus’ parlor. Two remembrances from the BFA show made my driveway rant less devastating, leaving the door a crack open for hope, more or less.
The gallery director Mike, also my friend, told the story of a job interview he had once at a pet cemetery. If hired he would become official headstone painter. A likeness of a cat to represent the dead cat. A bunny, a bunny. Or just paint it the favorite color of the deceased. The 90-year-old owner was the last to interview. Mike was told to yell into the old man’s practically deaf ear. Even though it brought him pain to do it, he did it, but not loud enough he guessed. He wasn’t hired. That story was rock n’ roll. It was life. I laughed. For me it brought meaning to all the pretty pictures hanging on the walls.
On a wall outside the gallery was a black and white poster photo taken in 1970 of the art faculty at the time. Some were dressed haphazardly into costume, because artists are allowed to do that for a group photo. One of my wife’s old professors, who is in the picture, walked me through it naming names, and pointed to his wife in the top row. I laughed and laughed. Then he brought our thirteen year old daughter over to the drawing teacher to get his criticism of the sketch book always attached to her hip at these functions. Haunting photo. Replete with twelve conflicting emotions if you’re foolish enough to let them mingle.
I am. Ta-da!
The reason I fall into despair from time to time is because I am the art fool who remains a league or two behind joy, but can easily see it and hope to get it for myself and others. Art is rock and roll, or jazz, hip-hop, what have you. An art show is a dead thing for most. Why? Because it is unshared. All the Bobis are out trying their best to reanimate the clay of their sisters and brothers. Impossible without a pow-wow, games, flash dancing, and overall wildness. It could happen, but not with pretty pictures. The Beats did it with wine jugs and bad poetry. Bobi succeeded with flowers, juggling and oats to a few eager peasants of Grémone Plateau. The painter as artist succeeds for himself only, from time to time. It is never good enough for everyone, not even anybody on the best day.
The Me culture continues to make art for the mees. Me too. But I am joining Dan on his next teaching lesson in Manhattan. I will follow through with my three-chord club idea, so I can get together with other bad guitar players and a jug of homemade wine. I’ll continue to show my paintings also, but only with the caveat that the room plays the music loud.