Necessary Luxury

by Dave Munger

Sculpture4It's almost impossible to come up with a pithy statement summarizing the age-old struggle to define “art” and “artist.” Yet for my stepbrother Mark, for whom daily existence is a struggle, wrestling with these concepts takes on a new dimension.

I can still remember scoffing in my Intro to Art class in college, when the professor told us about objets trouvés and showed us works like Duchamp's Fountain—an unmodified urinal displayed as art. That's not art, I muttered to myself. If I can do it, it's definitely not art. Picking up some random object and putting it in a museum does not make something art. Art is something more than that (Of course, maybe it's not, but at the time I was quite convinced I was right).

When we were kids, Mark was always picking up sticks and shaping them into amazing things. I was particularly fond of a knotted piece of driftwood that he carved into a hydroplane with his pocketknife. Hydros are like Seattle's version of stock car racing, and here Mark had transformed a bit of flotsam into something any ten-year-old would love.

Eventually one of his parents gave him a set of real carving tools, and he started to make sculptures out of wood. “Wood is interesting to me because it had a previous existence,” Mark says. “Then it ends up dying and being made into something completely different. What it went through in its life affects how it grows, which affects what you can make out of it.” Mark created the sculpture above to represent metamorphosis; as you rotate it, the magical person he's depicted seems to change, to lose its skin and express its inner self. But the act of creating the carving mimicked the work itself (or is it the other way around?), as he transformed a piece of wood into into a work that expressed what he wanted.

The more difficult transition, the one he's still struggling with, is making himself into an artist. It's something I share with him, because I struggle with it too. The differences between the two of us are primarily due to chance. I've never had the physical ailments he's had, and unlike me, he wasn't lucky enough to marry someone who can support the irregular career of an aspiring artist (Once again, we're back to definitions—you can of course dispute whether a writer is an artist).

After leaving high school, Mark drifted from one job to another. He found work in warehouses and on assembly lines, but the jobs always ended up being temporary. During one promising stint, he was packing software disks for Microsoft. He was soon promoted to quality control and seemed to be on a management track. But Microsoft ended up outsourcing the whole operation, and Mark was back where he started again.

“Art,” Mark says, “was always interfering with my life, distracting me from what I should be doing—becoming a good worker peon.” He worked all day at dead-end jobs, then worked all night on his art. He set a goal to be able to to spend more of his time making art—to get ahead, to earn enough to buy a house so he could live on an artist's limited income. “But my kind of work never paid enough to get ahead, or even break even.”

He was producing a lot, his art was an amazement to himself, but he couldn't possibly imagine selling it or even giving it away: No one would appreciate it as much as he did. What if he ran out of ideas and he had gotten rid of all his best work?

Eventually he realized that he was never going to run out of ideas; in fact, the opposite was true—he scarcely had time to execute all the ideas he had. Alongside this realization was another. At some point his art would fill up all his available space, and in order to make another work, he'd have to let something go. “When you let them out into the world, they make other people happy, they have a life of their own, and then you make something else.”

Here's Mark today: “If an artist wants to make a career of it, it involves other people. It's much more satisfying to have a reason to make art, and a place for it to go.” Is that a definition of art? Does art require an audience? But then we're back where we started, with the objet trouvé as art, assuming you can find an audience for it.

There's no question Mark sees the value in found objects. He's fascinated by metals and minerals; he's read about bonsai-tree-like forms of silver that are sometimes found in mines. These beautiful, intricate shapes, not made by humans, just found by them, are tremendously valuable. A three-inch tall specimen can sell for more than a house.

One summer I visited a gem show with Mark, and we saw specimen after specimen, some selling for tens of thousands of dollars. I was drawn to iron pyrite crystals. Smaller ones, known as “fool's gold,” are worthless. But the larger ones look like miniature alien spacecraft: Two-inch black cubes melding with irregular rocks. Perhaps these ships are resting on asteroids, waiting for the right moment to attack Earth. Or perhaps it's simply a part of nature that appears uncomfortably artificial.

(Source: Sulla55, Flickr)

All we bought that day was a $4 pearl for my daughter Nora's ring, which Mark had offered to fix. The old pearl had worn down, revealing the plastic sphere beneath. Mark told me that most pearls these days are manufactured in the same way. The pearl farmer seeds oysters with beads, then waits the minimum amount of time possible before they are covered with nacre, ready to harvest. Somehow they don't feel as valuable to me as “natural” pearls, formed over periods of years when a bit of dirt accidentally gets lodged in the oyster's shell. The nacre is no more lustrous, and I wouldn't be able to distinguish it from a seeded pearl, but still I value it more. Nora was thrilled when Mark mailed her the repaired ring. Apparently this bit of art was effective for its intended audience.

Mark still hasn't run out of ideas, but because of his back problem, he can't make the kind of art he made when he was younger. He had moved from wood to stone and metal, which required grueling polishing and grinding. He was seeking the simplest possible way to express motion with shapes. Motion, he says, can also show emotion. “If you're really good, you can get one line to show everything.” While he doesn't like the anger he finds in a lot of Picasso's work, he does appreciate its simplicity. He also likes cartoons, for the same reason. Now he is learning how to make jewelry—a completely different skill, but something he can manage if he is careful and doesn't get too engrossed in a task.

Mark would like to eventually supplement his small monthly Social Security Disability checks with income from jewelry-making. But he has difficulty convincing himself that people will value his work. “Art is not as important as food/shelter,” he says, “But it is a fundamental human need. Like an addiction or a religion. Society is really weird — we worship and cherish art, but discourage people from pursuing 'impractical' careers like becoming artists.” Instead, Mark feels that most cultures determine worth based on money.

Mark sees art as a medium of communication, a representation of an idea, a feeling, or a thought. “Art can transmit an idea through time. I can look at something a caveman made and understand what they were trying to communicate.” Mark wants to make works that will last for centuries, if not millennia. I'd be happy if people were still reading something I had written ten or twenty years in the future, but I can certainly understand the urge to get past the ephemeral to something eternal.

And like Mark, I don't see why that urge is often seen as an unnecessary luxury.