I have been trying to come to grips with a question that has plagued me off and on for my entire life.
Are artists suitable for polite society?
After a thorough investigation, my answer is, ”I doubt it.”
I’m not even sure that impolite society is safe.
From my experience, artists are not easily socialized. They lack the skills necessary to cope with the most basic aspects of civilization.
This question has arisen once again because of a confluence of events, most of which do not particularly matter.
However, I recently found myself in an online debate with a group of hostile art collectors. They had concluded that art might be a good thing to collect but artists themselves are not worth a bucket of warm spit.
Thinking this was an affront to all I hold dear, I started out bravely defending artists in this debate. But gradually the argument swung in the collector’s direction.
I could not for the life of me remember a single artist I have come across who was not lacking in at least some of the social graces.
While not as bothersome as ax murderers or lawyers, artists tend to get on people’s nerves.
I sadly ended up agreeing with the collectors.
Artists Are Difficult…..But Why?
After consulting a cultural anthropologist with little success, I decided to look back on my own life in a search for answers to this dilemma.
Early on, I naturally assumed my own social problems lay directly within my character. I attributed my inability to function to some sort of inherited condition in the family ……a genetic abnormality or something.
Would that it were so simple.
While I do not want to negate my personal deficiencies, it is clear that my problems were greatly exacerbated as soon as I began to identify with artists.
And once I crossed the threshold and began calling myself an artist, the maladjustment noose began to tighten precipitously.
Serious social deficiencies go hand and hand with art lessons and the exhibitions of drawings on refrigerator doors.
I was somewhere around the age of six when this epiphany about my identity occurred, and at that point I was still not fully aware of what the term “artist” meant.
Had I known more about the affliction, I would have sought shock therapy, or whatever treatment was in vogue at that time.
Instead I blundered on seeking my own path.
My family seemed fairly well educated and articulate.
I believe their interests and aspirations fell within the “normal” range.
My parents encouraged us in areas that were considered necessary in the cultural arena: music, dance, theater, and the like.
Yet “art” was rarely spoken about in public.
And once I showed an inclination towards it, a complete silence ensued.
In the years that followed, art was only whispered about when people in the family thought I wasn’t listening.
While it was ok to value art from a historical perspective, it seemed necessary for it to remain in the past tense.
For one to undertake such a risky pursuit as art was seen as a scourge or an affliction.
I also remember some talk within the family that an excess of “imagination” was not a good idea.
I suppose they were worried that I was afflicted with that as well.
However, the die was cast. I would spend my days imagining all sorts of things, much to my family’s dismay.
At that point in my life most of my musings involved a decadent life of leisure for which I was certain I was suited. Using my imagination as a guide I planned for such a life with abandon.
Not only that, but around that time I became enamored of making things that were too large for the refrigerator door, and for which there was no practical application.
Although I was aware of my parents concern, none of this bothered me. I persisted in the pursuit of my imagination and my art, and I remained stubbornly unaware of what lay ahead.
I did discover that imagination could have a dark side, however.
There are only so many times someone can visualize various women without their clothes before serious trouble ensues.
Then one afternoon while I was in kindergarten I was utilizing a large number of finger paints when I suddenly felt dizzy.
The entire classroom became distorted, noticeably brighter as if the colors of objects were coming from within.
There was definite shift in my consciousness.
It felt like I was falling from a great height and I was free of the constraints of time and space.
Suddenly I found myself on a small life raft with a kangaroo, a penguin, and a very difficult armadillo.
Having spent altogether too much time imagining things, I don’t believe this struck me as particularly odd or unusual.
I accepted it wholeheartedly.
The boat however was cramped, and the animals I shared it with were exceedingly surly.
I’m not sure why, but I became convinced I was being tested for some reason. It was necessary to survive this ordeal if I was to cope with the mix of people, manners, and customs we call society.
The kangaroo ran a cafeteria, the penguin baked chocolate pies and the armadillo was a poet.
After a while of being on the boat the armadillo ate all the pies, which upset the penguin, who lashed out at the kangaroo. It was nothing if not dysfunctional.
But somehow it also seemed to make sense to me, as if it was some sort of theatre production done in code.
I remained on this small boat for what seemed like weeks...maybe months.
Once rescued by a crocodile, I returned to a more normal state, and for the most part I continued in that state for the remainder of my childhood.
I took the whole episode to be a rare but normal occurrence.
Peter Pan was on TV about that time and it too had a crocodile, which no one seemed to question.
Then years later, after some 40 years of therapy, I was under hypnosis when another possible explanation manifested itself.
I was flooded with memories of an event, which I must have suppressed for all those years. This vivid memory had a direct bearing on my difficulties adjusting to societal norms.
It can be traced back to one particular summer evening.
I was, I think, five or six years old, and had been planning on living well into my teens when it happened.
It was Sunday evening. Lassie would soon be coming on TV. At that moment we were finishing an early supper at a cafeteria.
In the 1950s, cafeterias in Texas were part of a cultic ritual that involved red jello, creamed corn, and roast beef with gravy. A chicken had been sacrificed earlier on the cafeteria altar.
These rituals were reserved for Sundays and holidays, and it was mandatory that any relative within a 50 mile radius attend.
I don’t remember being emotionally vulnerable on this particular evening.
I believe that a sort of light-hearted mood encompassed us, which to those at the table might pass for merriment, or frivolity. It was however barely a notch or two above “morose” in a family of today.
But certainly the evening meal had brought with it the requisite satiation and contentment, as we embraced life’s blessings and drank to our good fortune.
The adults drank coffee and the children were stuck with milk.
I did not realize it, but that evening death was about to invade my world in its most potent form.
As the meal was winding down, I was somewhat happy about the world, it seemed splayed before me awaiting my command.
I then asked my mother if I could get a piece of chocolate cream pie.
Not thinking clearly due to roast beef poisoning, she nodded her head affirmatively.
Off I went on a short but unhappy journey.
As far as I was concerned I was proving my manhood by accomplishing this feat on my own.
I approached the cafeteria check out line cautiously. I got a new tray (slightly damp) from the large stack, then waited patiently for the line of people to move ahead making room for me.
Once I was positioned correctly I reached out and grabbed one of the four pieces of chocolate cream pie I saw before me.
The check out lady gave me the receipt and I rejoiced inwardly at my accomplishments. I then started back along the path to the table that was occupied by a cabal of parents, siblings, and assorted relatives.
“Pride” comes before the fall, and so too did “looking at the pie” come before my fall.
In so doing I took my eyes (and mind) off of what I had been concentrating on so concertedly (getting back to the table in one piece), and I tripped.
I was within striking distance of our table, but the chocolate cream pie had a mind all its own.
As my body was plunging toward the ground in slow motion, I could see the pie in mid air, first flying straight, then, beginning to wobble, as it picked its course from an infinite choice of courses.
Its arc was quick and cruel and the pie landed solidly on an elderly man who was sitting with his wife near our table
The pie no longer in my grasp, I headed back to my chair. It did not seem adequate but it was the only safety I could find at that moment.
I was correct. The chair offered no solace whatsoever.
Both my parents jumped up at once and proceeded to clean up the pie and the elderly man as best they could. They offered to pay the man’s dry cleaning bill, and apologized profusely.
He was very nice about it and hinted that he had tangled with children earlier in his life.
His wife, also seemed very nice about it, and in a matter of a few minutes the drama was over.
I sat there looking pale and anxious as I watched the remains my chocolate cream pie being cleaned from the floor by a cafeteria employee.
I was in a state of shock and all I could think about was that it was Sunday and Lassie would be on our new TV soon.
My mother totally misread the situation. She thought I was questioning my abilities to function in the world. She also had the idea that this episode had caused a psychic wound to my manhood. Whatever else she thought, she looked at me kindly, and told me to go back and get another piece of chocolate cream pie.
I shall curse my mother for that until my dying day.
But, being contrite and thus obedient, I looked down at my feet and shuffled off to repeat the entire journey. Besides I still wanted the pie.
This time however, the newness of the thing had worn off and there was no inward rejoicing about my abilities. Instead there was a certain bloodless quality to my actions.
A new tray was acquired, a chocolate cream pie was selected from the three that remained, and once the check out lady waved me though (she didn’t even charge us), the walk back to the table was begun.
On this my second attempt to control my destiny, I repeated verbatim my actions from the first.
Except this time I dropped the pie on someone else....one of the few patrons in the largely empty cafeteria.
Having just completed toss number two, I vaguely remember glancing up and seeing the elderly man I had hit on the first round. He and his wife were moving swiftly (for them) towards the door.
I do not believe I even looked at the second victim. Nor do I remember the actions of my parents. Nor do I remember much else.
Somehow I made it back to my chair. My heart was pounding, my throat was dry, and I obsessively thinking one thought over and over, “Lassie will be on TV soon”.
The blessedly thick fog of forgetfulness descended fully upon me.
Thus DEATH had come wholly into my little world.
I was pronounced embarrassed to death, and read my last rites.
Today, embarrassment for a 6 year old is a serious matter, necessitating the care of at least two medical personnel and a slew of specialists.
But this was during the brutal 1950s when “embarrassment” was not even recognized by the AMA as the acute condition it is.
Untreated, it is often terminal.
Fortunately, I blocked the entire event from my consciousness and therefore was able to survive…..though not very well.
Since the hypnosis session in which I dislodged these memories I have begun to question the entire truth of the chocolate pie incident. Perhaps it is a figment of my imagination.
Some days I am convinced that I did spend a part of my sixth year on a small boat with some animals.
Other days the cafeteria seems real and I have an acute distaste for chocolate cream pies.
I cannot be certain of what really happened in those early years.
Whatever transpired two things resulted:
I have been uncomfortable with any and all societal norms since that time.
I became a sculptor.