Ten years ago, I sat in an art class in New Paltz University. Across from me sat a pierced, dyed, tattooed young man, with a deep furrowed brow. In the front of the classroom, he had assembled something that looked like a pile of wood sticks, and written things all over them. When called upon by the professor in regards to his conceptual sculpture, he said “Society does not understand me, we artists are unappreciated, overlooked, and never acknowledged. People are so stupid. Nobody understands what I am trying to say. That is what this sculpture is about. Just how society is so ignorant, so devoid of understanding about what matters most. Nobody understands me.”
What arrogance, that he demand society to come to him! I was infuriated, I was livid! Who was he, that he should tell everyone to come to him! Why didn’t he go to society? Why should we feel obliged to understand him? AAAAGGH! But in his defense, his arrogance so well encapsulated all that I disagreed with in the arts. Or in the sciences. Or in religion. Or in life. Though a better man than me would have jumped over the table and slugged him for the betterment of the human race, I decided to be a turtle, and I shrank into my shell and kept my mouth closed. The teacher said his work was nice, very insightful. But I could tell that the young man was angered by the underwhelming response he received. When I went to leave the classroom at the end of the period, I read the words that he scrawled on his sticks. “The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.” “Be free, or free being.” “You are not what you are.” “Corporations suck the marrow out of the American dream.” “Is not is?” Etc., etc.
The next morning, I woke up early and went to the New Paltz campus. There, across every building, on every sidewalk, on every wall was spray painted the following words “The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.” “Society does not appreciate artists.” “Be free, or free being.” Etc., etc. I was infuriated. The kid did not get the praise for his “genius” that he felt he deserved, so he forced it down the throat of everyone on campus. I thought of reporting him, I was so enraged, but then I realized he would certainly be discovered, and besides, I didn’t want to tattle.
Shortly later, I discovered the poetry of John Keats. Keats was absolutely fascinated by life, by bees on flowers, and he was always in awe of the world around him. He felt that nature was fine, but people were finer yet. He lived to understand others, rather than ask others to understand him. And one day, it all fell into place for me: It is right, and effortless, to live my life trying to understand others. That is what Tolstoy wrote, what Sorolla painted, what Dvorak composed, what Bill Watterson drew. And then I came across a letter, written by Keats, in regards to this very concept.
“As to the poetical Character itself… it is not itself- it has no self- it is every thing and nothing- It has no character- it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated… what shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the chameleon Poet. It does no harm from its relish of the dark side of things any more than from its taste for the bright one; because they both end in speculations. A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity- he is continually in for- and filling some other Body- The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women… the poet has none; no identity- he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God’s Creatures.”
And there it was, Keats’ statement said it all. And it was no coincidence that his statement was diametrically opposed to those spray painted words in New Paltz.
And here it is, my painted agreement with Keats. It’s not finished, the violin strings are not yet in place, but it’s going to Washington Square with me tomorrow morning. Hope to see you at my booth this weekend, between 9th and 10th Streets, on University Place, just above Washington Square. Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, 12 til 6.