Friday, January 12, 2018


The Only Serious Thing In The World

Harry Bertschmann, "Stuttgart No. 6", 1957  (Bertschmann Studio / NYT 2017)

The New York Times recently presented a showcase article about an artist, a painter living in New York City. They've produced a body of work and it's clear they have some chops, a vision -- but they're still trying for that Big Break to achieve recognition. And they're 86 years old.

American culture really has no idea what to do with the Old (and 'old' is a plastic term; so, anyone over 55, say) beyond separating them from the most important thing in American culture: their money. In that, Olds are no different than any other segment in our population.

In the brave new 5G world, everyone is a unit or resource, part of a demographic group to be influenced, led, monitored and monetized. To the Powers, what people do with their little lives isn't so important -- it's what percentage of their income can be shorn from them during those lives that's key.

In 2016, The New Inquiry webzine dedicated an issue to aging, and in an editorial comment noted
In the ... capitalist core (that is, those regions which have long since sundered the multigenerational household as the central economic unit), old age isn’t held in the public esteem it vaguely remembers it should be due...
But ... (m)any of the indignities of old age are, on inspection, the indignities of being socially discarded — feelings of isolation, a fall in status, loss of autonomy. That is, these are not organic facts of the body but outcomes desired, at some level, by someone. Why that is, and who benefits, are both painfully obvious and logically obscure.
The general assumptions made about old age have to do with physical changes, a reduction and a diminution. Older people "retire", leave the jobs where they labored and the homes where they lived and (possibly) raised families, and slowly disappear from public view.  Who cares what they did in their lives? They're no longer vital or real contributors to the world. That's all in the past.

And journey's end is death, the ultimate reduction and mystery.  Olds are a reminder of The End of everything our spiritually crippled culture asserts is most important. Small wonder most people are almost eager to ignore them, unless of course there's money to be made.

People with a desire for artistic expression make efforts to translate their insights and experience, birthing them into the world through whatever medium. American culture takes art seriously, and boasts of the achievements of our artists, but doesn't support those artists and won't take them seriously unless there's money involved (if so, Jeff Koons is the greatest artist humankind ever produced).

Often the image of that effort is connected to youth --  the young artist, the unheated garret; trying for recognition and fame, the "big break". Most people wouldn't connect being a "struggling artist" with being an Old -- but I'll bet you lunch that it's more common.

When the New York Times published Harry Bertschmann's story, it was a reminder that artists frequently make trade-offs between creative time and material security, Working The Day Job. Bertschmann was no different; he worked for decades doing advertising art, and making that choice affected Bertschmann's path as an artist.

In that review, the NYT story took a traditional perspective -- an underlying assumption that art must result in financial success and name recognition to have any intrinsic worth: Bertschmann knew Rothko and Kline and Motherwell; they got famous and rich, and he didn't.

The usual conclusion of a storyline like this will depict the unrecognized artist, aging, living in solitary poverty -- a cold-water, sub-basement apartment; a description of finished canvases stacked beside the pallet and mattress, the stained, pathetic hotplate.

But this story has a Cinderella ending: good news, that Bertschmann is becoming known, late in life, with a promise of financial reward: the NYT article was timed to appear a week before a solo show of his selected works at a prestigious, upstate gallery. There's lots of buzz and potential for sales.

Don't misunderstand: I'm all for Cinderella endings. I'm glad Bertschmann and his wife will have more money, more security -- and, that his work will be shown. People will see it -- and whatever alchemical magic happens when we see, hear or read art can take place. That's why Art gets done. I would suggest that if Bertschmann were here, he'd say that's what he's been doing for 60 years; it's why he's on the planet.

At the same time, there's a reminder that perspectives and assumptions about art, about aging, and life and death, served up by our culture are terrifyingly inadequate. In spite of itself, the NYT article of Bertschmann's story gives a glimpse of that -- and that sometimes, in this world, there are happy endings.

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