True Last Judgment

Published in Public Books, October 28, 2015

Every reader gets one writer like this. The writer whose eyes you trust, whose mind fits your exact contours. A writer whose books order the world for you. You might first read him or her in college, as I did, and then go back to the books over and over again, through every contingency. My writer was Marcel Proust. When my life was in turmoil, I read him again the way you might open a survival manual in a desert, or on a life raft. He was funny, brilliant, surprising, and we cared about the same things.

Which lead me to redouble my efforts as artist and writer. I’d always been an artist and Proust, in his three thousand page novel, wrote about why that mattered. Digging into your own life, developing the negatives that are stored in your memory, waiting to be given meaning. Because to me, ultimately, almost everything else was a cop-out; nothing really added-up.

Proust was lucky — he had more than enough money to sponsor his Art. As Adam Gopnik put it in the introduction to Letters of Marcel Proust, he had a “safe well of money that kept him from having to hustle or beg for his work.” When Swann’s Way failed to find a single publisher in Paris, Proust became his own patron. André Gide, knowing of Proust’s reputation as a charming lightweight, read only a few pages of the manuscript before he rejected it. Later, in 1914 he apologized to Marcel:

… For me you were still the man who frequented the houses of Mmes X. and Z., the man who wrote for the Figaro, I thought of you, shall I confess it, as “du coté de chez Verdurin;” a snob, a man of the world and a dilettante—the worst possible thing for our review.

To turn a book down because of whose houses the author frequented, or where his articles appeared, makes Gide the snob, not Proust. Our hero didn’t give Gide the satisfaction of apologizing to him either. He managed to turn it around.

Had there been no rejection, no repeated rejections by the N.R.F. I should never have had your letters…If you regret causing me pain (and you did in another way which I should rather tell you by word of mouth, if ever my health permits me doing so), I beg of you to feel no more regret, for you have given me a thousand times more pleasure than pain.

But, without that private income The Search probably would not have been published. My own situation as an artist has been less idyllic. First, as a woman of my generation, I’ve long had to function in a male-dominated field. My parents were anything but rich and although they supported me through college, and paid for my art classes, once that was over, they made it clear I was on my own. Whatever money there was after that ended up supporting my mother’s boyfriend, who had morphed into her caretaker.

From the age of seven on, except for one short break when I was twenty-one, I’d always painted. Without knowing what the hurdles might be, I threw myself into it like a Whirling Dervish.

As a young man, Proust floundered. He wrote little columns for the newspaper le Figaro, often under a pen name, and most often about society. That got him a bit more focused. Still, it worried his mother; he seemed to be on the path to becoming a dandy.

I didn’t have the money to become a female dandy. And, with two children in my early 20s, the quality I needed most was focus; more like Elizabeth Warren, turning around while she drove to diaper her baby with her free hand.

I grew up with a difficult and talented mother, a woman with no impulse control, and an adoring father she was cuckolding. My family was always on the verge of coming apart, the shadow of that other man just outside the frame. Proust grew up with conventional, rich parents who got along. His mother doted on him, as her husband’s attention was elsewhere, but that was par for the course in those days.

Money in Proust’s life was cushioning, like the pillows Madame Swann is constantly placing behind the narrator’s back. He could rent a whole floor of rooms in a hotel to have more quiet when he’s writing, or fund the publication of his rejected first novel. Looking at Proust close up is like studying The Capitalist Survival Handbook.

The struggle for me has been opposite, the constant lack of money and support that can derail even the most committed. The act of painting is easy compared with the struggle of making a living as a painter. As Samuel Butler said, “Any fool can paint a picture, but it takes a wise man to be able to sell it.”

That said, I still believe, like Proust, that art is the true last judgment:

For instinct dictates our duty and the intellect supplies us with pretexts for evading it. But excuses have no place in art and intentions count for nothing; at every moment the artist has to listen to his instinct, and it is this that makes art the most real of all things, the most austere school of life, the true last judgment.

Who could have predicted when I finally arrived at my destination, paintings in hand, that there’d be no one waiting? That the art world would, in the meantime, have moved on. Fashion has always been a factor in art, but now it seems to be the whole story. Before, it had meant the difference between the bright colors of Vermeer and the close-value palette of Rembrandt: Delft vs. Amsterdam. Now it’s a question of Koons’s factory produced items, made by groups of hired art workers; not art like mine, created by hand. Alas, the craze for the new has completely taken over. New, in the collectors mind, is good. There is no thought of value, quality, or beauty.

Emerson wrote, “The hero is he who is immovably centered.” I changed the “he” to a “she,” and carried the quote around for years. I thought that if I risked everything, if I was “immovably centered,” things would work out.

There were some who knew better. My friend and confidant Clement Greenberg, for example. Clem was the son of a businessman and chose not to be a painter even though he liked painting. There are photographs of him, brush in hand. Once, after a few drinks and in a moment of regret, he said, “I should have been a painter. I would have been at least as good as Guston.” I was surprised. I didn’t think Clem had taken painting that seriously as an option, though he was sharp about technique and an insider when it came to studio talk: “Try that, a little more palette knife,” he might say, or “go with the high key color.” And we all knew about Clem’s gift for drawing.

Often when I complained to him, he’d say, “Yes, I know, the life of an artist is very hard.” It took me quite a while, but I finally got it, a few years ago. I was living the life Greenberg had chosen not to live. Maybe he was just too smart, or too upper-class, to deal with the constant shifting of opinions that a painter is subjected to. Maybe painting was just a field for the offspring of tailors and tanners (or their equivalents), as we saw in the Renaissance with Andrea del Sarto and Sandro Botticelli.

When Greenberg gave a talk, he negotiated the salary beforehand. He wouldn’t agree to speak unless it was appropriately high. It was the same with his writing. Clem didn’t do “freelance,” while what I had chosen to live was a life “on spec.”

In the past, artists had patronage from the king or count or court —usually highly cultivated people who’d been groomed for that role. During the golden days of Abstract Expressionism there were rich, knowledgeable Americans, B.H. Friedman and Allan Stone, for example, who were daring enough to collect the new abstract work. Now the judges are often hedge fund billionaires about whom, sometimes, the best that can be said is, “He has not been accused of any criminal wrongdoing.”

The type of collectors I’d first known, with elegance, taste, interest in art, and money to spend on it—like certain Cheever characters one used to see walking around on the Upper East Side—hardly exist anymore.

Consider the Hirschlands: Paul, from a major German banking family, and Ellen, the niece of the great Matisse collectors Claribel and Etta Cone. Both Ellen and Paul were raised among masterpieces. Escaping Germany in 1939, Paul carried the family’s Tintoretto, The Finding of Moses, over the German border wrapped in newspaper. Later he sold it to the Metropolitan Museum. You can see it hanging there.

And there were others, like Joseph Hirshhorn, with a great and developed eye, who put together a museum full of contemporary art, and Paul Mellon, founder of the National Gallery in Washington. That kind of commitment is rare now, and art is too often just a business, like real estate.

Yes, art is still the true last judgment. But many of the so-called judges today don’t have the taste to make those calls. This is where I find myself, in a world dominated almost entirely by men who have the money, but neither the judgment, nor the vision, to influence my field.

While I aspire to tradition, standards, and the classical in my art, it’s not quite clear what the market adheres to. With no standards, we are in a decadent period, where the current art is unable to hold its own with regard to the great art of the past.

Here is Proust, remembering an experience of music and art:

In the end the joyous motif was left triumphant; it was no longer an almost anxious appeal addressed to an empty sky, it was an ineffable joy which seemed to come from paradise, a joy as different from the sonata as some scarlet-clad Mantegna archangel sounding a trumpet from a grave and gentle Bellini seraph strumming a theorbo. I knew that this new tone of joy, this summons to a supraterrestrial joy, was a thing that I would never forgot. But would it ever be attainable to me?

Do artists today have the courage to think like that?

From Translating Proust by Pat Lipsky