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Paring my Nails

February 25, 2015

The other day I was paring my nails and I had a Proustian moment, my very own madeleine. My mind went back to 1962 when I first read James Joyce’s words in the Portrait of the Artist describing his epiphany: “The artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” Those words of Aristotelian/Thomistic logic struck me like a thunderbolt then and they still ring true. An art work, while the product of the artist, stands apart from its creator. One cannot exist without the other, but once the artist releases, gives birth, to the work of art, it exists on its own merits.

I have been thinking about this separation of art from the artist for over a half of a century. Certainly the genesis of a work of art exists in the mind of the artist and its execution is by the hand of the artist. However, once it’s done, it stands on its own. Anonymous art works are no less valuable those by a known artist. Art works by a scoundrel, Caravaggio, are no less valuable than those by a saint, Fra Angelico. The history of art is filled with very good art done by very bad people.

Valuable is a funny concept in regard to works of visual art. Is a Gauguin worth hundreds of millions of dollars? No, it isn’t, it is priceless and if priceless, then it is also valueless. The worth of a painting comes when it is seen by a viewer. There is something obscene about the current art market with its ever increasing prices at auctions for art works both good and bad. Of course, art has always been a hobby horse for the rich. People without taste trying to prove otherwise are nothing new, but we appear to have reached a new high (or is that low?) in money chasing art. That is too simplistic as many high end art purchases are investments pure and simple. Investment in art has outstripped other investments many times over. It’s simply buying and selling art like pork bellies only more profitable.

What’s to be gained by the forces of triumphal commodity capitalism in having someone like me go into a museum and look at a painting. Where is the money in that? Actually, the price of looking has gone up since I was young with most art museums requiring hefty admission fees plus even more money for so-called ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions. I’ve been to exhibitions recently that ended up costing thirty-five bucks to join the herds in a jam-packed gallery. Lucky me, I have a press card that gets me in free and often to private views of exhibitions, but as a child and young man art museums were generally free. My grandfather would take me to San Francisco’s deYoung and Legion of Honor from about the time I was ten. It was there that I fell in love with paintings. As a teenager, I lived in England and went to public art galleries and museums there and in Paris. Later, as an art student, I went to museums in San Francisco and New York. All without paying a cent.

You are the product of your experiences and I doubt if my life would have followed the course it did had I not gone repeatedly to museums when I was young. It is interesting that fifty years ago, and more, the galleries were often quite empty and I had whole rooms to myself. It’s a paradox that even with high admission charges the museums are more crowded now than then. This seemingly blows my theory that museums are more elitist now, but it’s who doesn’t go rather than who does that matters regardless of the attendance figures that is important. What is more, those that should, don’t and their numbers are increasing. Yes, museums have free days and school tours, but it begs the point that museums are seen by many as elite. That’s a shame.

meaning_meaningWhat drives people to become artists? Why did Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, the young artist in question, want to be an artist and not a plumber? Even then a plumber would make a better living than a poet, but a poet’s life was a whole lot better than a plumber’s at least in Stephen’s eyes. Joyce’s hero wanted romance; to be a romantic. I think romance is still a good idea a century after Joyce’s book. Certainly, art offered me a way out boredom and on to a path that I hoped would end in adventure. When I was twenty, I didn’t think of making a living or about saving for a pension plan. I wanted to be an art hero and that’s why I read Portrait of the Artist. If Stephen could do it, I reasoned, so could I. I don’t think I ever became the hero I wanted to be, but my life has been filled with wonders and it wasn’t boring. I’m slowing down a bit now. It is the winter of my life, however, I’m hoping for a couple more springs before the curtain drops.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, Monday, February 23, 2015.

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One comment

  1. I love your text”Joyce’s hero wanted romance; to be a romantic. I think romance is still a good idea a century after Joyce’s book. ”

    I couldn’t agree with you more -without the romantic view

    we have dead materialism . THANK YOU so much for this wonderful site
    Lelah



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