I had a painter friend who once said about his relationship (in so many words), “I have relations with my partner, but I am in love with Art.”
We laughed about it at the time, and his partner, a wonderful woman with a good sense of humor, took it in stride.
They aren’t together anymore.
He still paints like a mad man while she has gone off and married someone else.
I used to admire my friend for his daemonic obsession with art. Art and travel, that’s what his life is mostly about. When he uttered that phrase all those years ago, however, something stuck in me that I wasn’t ready to accept back then. And now, years later, I sit here contemplating the erotics of art, the artist and his relationship with craft, and I think yes, in so many ways, my friend was right.
I suppose we should clarify a few things for the sake of . . . well, for several reasons. A relationship with another human being is something entirely different from our relationship to craft. Human beings interact, have needs, wants. Human beings share time and conversation, physical love, sunshine, etc. For many of us our partner is a life line for when we sail too far from shore, and they help us back to port before we become Van Gogh, Sid Barrett, or Paul Reubens. I’m joking about Paul Reubens.
The point is, for those artists who are attached, we are attached because we want to be, because of all the reasons two people become attached, and, even when the relationship interferes with our work, we are grateful for the other person because of what they bring to our lives.
And then there’s the jealous mistress.
Being an artist of any type is a demanding vocation. The amount of discipline, self-determination, courage, and will it takes to be creative often requires us to be isolated. We cannot always take out the trash, hang curtains, go to breakfast, watch a movie. We must stay focused, we want to stay focused, because we are engaged with another who fulfills us in ways no human being can.
I imagine this is true for other disciplines as well: scientists, doctors, and investment bankers all have a drive to discover, to improve, learn, evolve. Anyone who is following their calling is sure to feel the pull to get back into it as soon as possible when they are away. This is not unlike a love affair. Speaking for writers and other artists, those of us who practice a craft seriously are engaged on a relationship level. We love our art, we love being artists. Art is the perfect lover. It feeds our ego and it rarely, if ever, leaves. Art fills our world with sound and color, with discovery. In being an artist we are titillated by the smallest successes, and our arousal inflates us inside, lifts us above the mundane and makes us feel alive and sometimes even immortal. We never truly get away from our craft because it lives inside us so that everything we see in the world is measured against the graphs and lenses of artistic mimesis. What we see we desire to duplicate in the highest form we can, and then turn it back into the world and say, “look at what I have done.” If we do it reasonably well we get high, and for a moment we are convinced that there is no greater love than the one we have for our craft, and which our craft has for us.
No doubt the reason so many artists are single is because it is impossible for another human being to do for us what Art does. Practically speaking a human partner is more reasonable, and the right person in one’s life becomes a steady presence, not a source of extreme highs and lows, but a regular hum in the rhythms of our day-to-day. But Art leaves us striving, and this effort to achieve is addictive. Like the unobtainable lover our craft demands that we serve it, and it promises, if we behave just so and do what we are told, some small reward. When that reward comes, often through long, difficult periods of work, we are hooked anew and the affair carries on.
When looked at in a certain light the relationship an artist has with his or her craft borders on unhealthy; can in fact be unhealthy. The same can be said for any relationship, however, and in consideration of that I offer a final thought about the artistic life.
The call to create, once acknowledged, begins the affair. Whether one keeps partnerships, employment, children, pets, perhaps even the extended family, is the choice of the individual. For my own purposes I seek balance in all things. But I am never satisfied with my craft. I know that the creative life is always going to be there and that it must be addressed. I write, not because I cannot think of anything else to do, but because it feeds me and my starving ego. Writing is sexy, it is bold, and it is fulfilling (it can also be frumpy, dull, and frustrating). Just like an erotic relationship.
Artists are the feminine to Art’s masculine. As the incubators of creativity we are impregnated by inspiration and the need to produce. This is a symbiotic relationship. Art does not create itself — it is created by the artist. The artist does not create in a vacuum but is inspired by ideas, by experience, and by aesthetics. In this way the affair is complete, the relationship ongoing, the progeny infinite.