The Laws of Nature

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Art of Maximizing Your Time

The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa
By Michael Kimmelman (2005)
painting by Alice Neel

Chapter 6: The Art of Maximizing Your Time

Well, here’s a topic that piques my interest, and the opening sentences in this chapter strongly resonate with me: Sometimes art can be a refuge from life, and in extreme cases it is a second chance at life. Another way to put the familiar phrase about the relative lengths of art and life is to say that what makes great art great is that it remains eternally young, while we don’t. How true! Just visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and you’ll see people of all ages looking with awe at paintings that were completed a century or more ago. The relevance and appeal of this art persists through generations of social change.

Kimmelman writes about artists who take risks to create great art; who challenge their creative limits. Coincidentally, earlier today I watched a documentary about one such artist, Alice Neel. She lived and raised her children in poverty while dedicating her life to painting portraits. Not just any portraits, but truly “great” ones that delved into the soul of humanity without blinking. Her paintings are bold relentless examinations of the human condition. However, it was only after painting for 50 years without making sales that she finally got her big break – a solo show at the Whitney Museum in New York City.

As I mentioned earlier, the author gives examples of artists (Jay DeFeo, Eva Hesse, and other women) who gave their all – maximized their time - to create great art. For them, this required a willingness to fail, which is generally a sign of optimism as well as a prerequisite for making good art. Hesse wrote in her diary “All my stakes are in my work. I have given up in all else. Like my whole reality is there – I am all there.” We may or may not have the support of those around us in our pursuit of artmaking, but that shouldn’t matter. If we’re truly oblivious to discouragement, we’ll devote ourselves to our work and maximize our time.

Kimmelman also writes of the moving story about a young Jewish German artist named Charlotte Salomon who endured the Holocaust and was murdered at Auschwitz at the young age of twenty-six. The story is so moving and well-written that I’ll leave it to my readers to pick up this book and read it. What Charlotte left behind was a 1,300 page quasi-fictional diary of text and pictures entitled Life? Theater? A Play with Music. This diary included gouache paintings, hand-written text, and musical notation. According to Kimmelman: her work preached deliverance through everylasting love. This great work was produced under the worst possible conditions in a relatively short period of time.

The efforts of all these women, and other “great” artists, outlived them. Will our art outlive us? What are we willing to do to make that happen? As I enter my “senior” years of life I often think about how to maximize the time I have left. But, I’m really not a Type-A (more like an A-minus) so I doubt that I’ll ever become obsessed with maximization. However, I’ll try to keep up the pace.

How about you?


-Don said...

"Art is a refuge in life" - check
"Art is a second chance in life" - check
But, what do you mean we won't remain eternally young?

Seriously, though, I know exactly what you mean about maximizing the time we have left. As you know, I've been throwing myself full force into this thing I love with optimism and tenacity. But, unlike Kimmelman suggests, I have no willingness to fail. (Of course, everyone will probably say that's just the optimist speaking.)

The biggest word that reaches out to me in this wonderful posting is "relevance". That's where I've allowed myself to stall out a bit recently. How can I make sure my work is relevant? I want it to be important. I want it to transcend time and survive social change. In fact, there's a part of me that wants my work to be involved in social change. Is that too much to ask?

As I read this back it feels a bit narcissistic, but I'm going to go with it. I feel the need for transparency right now followed by the need for a beer RIGHT NOW.



Anonymous said...

You're an A minus? Well- that confirms it- I'm a solid B minus. I use to think I was a type A, until I married one. Who can keep up with that?
Thank you for introducing me to Alice Neel. I must look up her other works. I'm truly moved by her painting today; it is the kind of work I aspire to.
In the past year, I've gotten in touch with a willingness to fail and it has been a revelation. Being willing to fail doesn't mean giving up. Being willing to fail doesn't preclude trying to improve or reaching for one's best work. Being willing to fail is simply an acknowledgment we have absolutely no control how others will view our work and vision.
I'm 48 and I hope in the next decade to reach a new height in my creative self. Even if I fail in the eyes of the art world, I have succeeded far more than I ever thought possible. Art has saved me.
I embrace being a B minus. It fits!

Eva said...

I'm at the age that are few years, days, or possibly minutes of my life left, (one never knows). I enjoy the being retired and having art to fill my remaining days, but I have so many projects to finish and books to read before I past, that few will be. I find myself trying to get things in order before I lose the ability to do so. All of my art now is smaller and on surfaces that I can put in portfolios and or on video for my children and grandchildren.

Robin said...

My mother teases me that my art will become "more valuable" once I am deceased - how sick is that, my own mother! I don't create art thinking about it's longevity other than I make sure I always use museum quality paints and papers. Hopefully the paintings I am selling now won't disintegrate in 50 years and hopefully they will remain appealing and timeless where ever they are hanging (or stored).

hw (hallie) farber said...

I love Alice Neel's paintings; I was fortunate and met her once at a show in D.C. (loved her nude self-portrait at 60+).

Art is my refuge; lack of support makes me more determined, and failure is a learning experience. I buy the best art supplies but don't worry about the journey my art might take. I'm a type LB (laid-back); I want nothing more than time and the energy to create.

Unknown said...

Hi Don - Oh, that we could remain eternally young! You are a good example of an artist who maximizes time. You're so productive! As for relevance - I think there are timeless messages and they're all related to the human dilemma. We humans share so much in common, and those commonalities are the concepts for great art, IMHO. Cheers! (I raise my wine glass to you).

Hi Pam - I'd never classify you as a B-! No way; you're much more dedicated than that. Do look for the Alice Neel movie (I think the title is her name). Netflix has it and I watched it as an instant play on my computer. What an interesting woman and artist! I've always embraced failure as a learning experience because I tend to learn the hard way. So, I seldom expect to succeed right away. But, if I stick with it, undaunted, I can usually reach a place that pleases me (even if it doesn't please anyone else). Seems to me you've had a lot of successes, Pam, so keep going!

Hi Eva - how wonderful that you're archiving your work for posterity. Your grandchildren will cherish it, I'm certain. And, it's wonderful that even in your "retirement" you find a comfortable scale for your new work. We artists don't stop creating until our last breath - even if those creations remain in our heads.

Hi Robin - you raise an interesting point about using archival materials. When I started out in watercolors, I was lucky enough to have an instructor who insisted that I always use archival materials even if I'm just experimenting. You never know when a masterpiece will emerge! And, I, too, have heard the rumor about the value of my work doubling after my demise. Great! Then my son will be all the richer :-)

Unknown said...

Hi Hallie - How COOL that met Alice Neel! I like your type classification, LB :-)

M said...

Maximizing -no, drifting and looking --yes. Hope to improve and focus---yes. Tired ---yes.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kathy, Wonderful posting and I enjoyed the thought provoking comments.
When I think of being willing to fail, I think about the need to keep experimenting and pushing my boundaries. It would be a sad thing to rest on past successes.

Wow! 50 years with no sales. One must really believe in oneself and be determined. Though, my ambitions are changing with the years, so I might be there myself.

I think I'm a "p" personality...

Unknown said...

Hi Margaret - I just visited your blog and can appreciate the transition time you must take to regroup. We all need time like that and it's a good way to develop focus. Enjoy!

Hi Peggy - I like your new category, too. "P!" Great!

Celeste Bergin said...

Kathy--how old are you? I am going to be 60 this year. UGH--I hope to get used to that --my Mother used to tell me that 60 is young (she said that when she was 80).
Well...I don't know if anyone will care about my art when I am gone.

Unknown said...

Hi Celeste - I try not to worry about whether or not my art will endure beyond my lifespan since there's so little I can do about it anyway. The joy of creating it now is more important to me. You certainly don't look 60!!! I'm just a youngster - 58.

Mark Sheeky said...

Every reply here is an inspiration. I find it hard to believe Kathy that you don't maximise your art time. Reading a chapter and typing it up for us alone takes a lot of discipline! Thank you for it.

Willingness to fail hmm... perhaps not caring about success is more like it? Recognition that life is finite and that you've got to do what you want while you have the chance is important too.

I have to admit I feel younger than I have in a long time. Lying about your age, especially to yourself, works! Maintaining the curiosity, willingness to change and to empathise like a child is harder, but should be practised. So many people have lost that valuable tool.

Unknown said...

Hi Mark - so true! It's the child in each of us that makes every day a fresh opportunity to create and enjoy. Perhaps we should all be like Peter Pan? Also, I like the other side of the coin that you show us about failure vs. just not caring about success. More to ponder ...

Karen Martin Sampson said...

I just found you through the blog of another. This is a fascinating commentary on the book you are reading - which I will have to get and read myself! I too am older now and trying to determine the best way to fill the time I have left. I built my dream studio a couple of years ago and am painting what I like rather that taking
on a lot of commissions or illustration work now - I am in a semi remote area and living well but simply with my new husband (of eight years now). How blessed to have reached this stage after numerous struggles. And I feel totally willing to fail, which I did not feel when I was young! I will be a follower with great interest of your blog.

Dan Kent said...

So I'm late - but I did not want to miss commenting on this one. That is because I just LOVE Alice Neel. I have had the privilege to see some of her works in person, and she blows me away. It has always a bit puzzling to me, given the almost cartoony quality. I think now, though, that it is because she displays her sitters souls! I am 48, and have been a type C all my life. I have only just rediscovered what it is that I need to do - art - and am working towards a B! Got to improve that GPA.

Unknown said...

Hi Karen - thank you for reading and commenting! Please feel free to join our discussions. You and I are in a similar situation - I just built my dream studio a year ago and have found time for greater focus on my work. There's something satisfying about reaching this stage in life. Happy painting!

Unknown said...

Hi Dan - I can see why you'd like Alice Neel's work (as do I) since your work is similar in terms of capturing the "soul" of a subject. That's why I'm a big fan of your work and hers. I hope you can see the film. I'd never assign a "C" to you! Much higher.