Art and Artists
Though I have painted for thirty years and written fifteen novels since 1988, I never have referred to myself as "an artist". When I hear the word "art" I have always tended to think the speaker either pretentious or a shallow thinker or both. Questions like "What is art?", "What is the purpose of art?", and "What is the role of art in the world?" have always left me cold primarily because art itself has never been properly defined.
Art is often associated with creation and expression. It also seemingly implies a notion of "free will". A snail that creates a silver trail on a sidewalk is not normally referred to as artist. Birds singing in trees don’t get the adoration of a Renata Tibaldi or a Joan Sutherland. Animals are not granted the status that humans are, to wit "free". Animals are said to act instinctually whereas humans are supposed to have the capacity to "think" and "choose" and such. When a bird builds a nest nobody talks about "architecture". A monkey swinging from branch to branch isn’t doing "ballet".
So, my guess is that humans use the term "art" to feel good about themselves. They get to rise out of the jungle. Like with most religions, they get to feel that on the totem pole of existence they sit "just a notch below God".
I, of course, think this is all bullshit. I do not think man is free. I do not think human behavior is any less instinctual than animal behavior. I think to separate man from the animal world is ridiculous.
In my own case I have noticed that when I write novels and paint pictures I do so not because I "want to", but because I "have to". If I’m not writing a novel or preparing a paint show I go crazy. My acts of creation are no more acts of free will than a dolphin’s leaps in the ocean or a snail’s silver trail on a sidewalk. I never consider myself to be doing "art"; I consider myself being what I am and doing what I have to do.
As a result I have tended to throw terms like art and creation into the garbage can….
…Until, that is, the eighth of August, 2011. On this day at about five o’clock in the afternoon, I used the word "art" and gave "art" a reason to exist.
It was the last day of the family (me, girlfriend, and nine-year-old daughter) vacation. We had spent a week in Corsica – four days in and around Bonifacio and three days in Ajaccio. We were flying out the next morning.
Though I’ve lived in Switzerland for thirty-eight years, I had never been to Corsica before. I had heard the people were not too friendly, that there was too much traffic, and had thought "why go to Corsica when you can go to….?" Well, you finish the sentence. I had been dumb with my dumb prejudices. Actually we had wanted to go to Mallorca (where we’d already been three times), but the easyJet ticket prices to Palma were three times more expensive when I started looking for a warm summer destination. Ajaccio was sixty francs each way, cheaper than taking the train from Lausanne to Zurich.
Corsica was the opposite of everything I had expected. It was not crowded, the people were wonderful, and the island is as beautiful as the world gets. The only problem for me was that there is only one golf course, Sperone. But it is such a great course – the Pebble Beach of Europe – that I will forgive the Corsicans their disinterest in my favorite pastime at age sixty-one.
By the last day I was "beached-out" and my skin told me "no more sun, please, Daddy." It was four o’clock. I had just taken a nap. The "family" wanted to go to the pool in our Best Western hotel. I picked up the tourist map of the Ajaccio area and saw there was a museum just a couple of blocks away called "Le Musée Marc Pétit". I knew the area because I had gone alone to beach there the first morning for a swim at sunrise. (The family always gets up much later than I do on vacation. I drink red wine at night and go to bed early. They drink Coke and ice tea and watch TV til around midnight.) There was a big ugly apartment "résidence" next to the beach of Aspretto and the water was not the turquoise Tahiti blue we had seen in Bonifacio. But I had enjoyed the swim.
Anyway, looking at the map I knew more or less where the museum was and it was only a five minute walk from the hotel.
I went downstairs and asked the pleasant young woman at the front desk if she knew anything about the Marc Pétit museum. She said she had heard of it, but had never been there. I went outside, pulled down my sleeves, put up my collar, and went to the car to find a hat I had received at a golf tournament that I knew I had somewhere in my golf bag. I hadn’t worn a hat since high school baseball, but I wanted no more sun rays to hit my body.
I crossed the busy four-lane road that runs along the bay. I walked past the ugly building, looked down at the beach - it was crowded in the afternoon – and kept plodding along the rather trashy cracked sidewalk. Suddenly there was a nice yellow house on the left side of the road. It had an open driveway. Part of it said "residence privé" and part said "Musée Marc Pétit. I read the sign out front. The house had been used to quarantine cholera victims in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. When the cholera epidemic was pretty much over, a rich family bought the building. Surviving members still lived there. They loved the sculptures of a French sculpture named Marc Pétit. They had bought a whole bunch of them….
I took five steps up the driveway. The grass in front of the private residence was very green. Gleaming green, canary yellow, blue sky: art anybody? Straight ahead of me was a gravel path with a line of sculptures. Marc Pétit had definitely seen Giacometti. The first had a skinny man with tree branches coming out of his upper body. Great stuff. The next was what looked like a child’s playpen full of emaciated standing humans with skulls with no eyes or mouths or noses. Ten meters further there was a living young woman sitting in the shade of the building in a fold-out chair. She stood up. Twenty-eight maybe. Nice wavy brown hair. Light brown eyes. She asked me if I wanted to see the exhibition. What exhibition I said. The one inside the building she said. It’s a twentieth century Expressionist exhibition chosen by Marc Pétit she said. Is he still alive I said. Yes she said. If you want to look at the sculptures first, they go around the building she said. Thanks I said.
The sculptures and the garden were perfect for each other. There were yellow, orange, and red flowers everywhere. All the sculptures were of skinny people who looked lonely or suffering or both.
The young woman took me inside the part of the building where the paintings were. I only had nine euros in my pocket and a ticket was ten. She let me slide. I asked her if I had been her only customer that day. She said yes.
I knew Zoran Music’s work. I had seen pieces in Paris and Lausanne. I didn’t know the other three painters. One painted what appeared to be mentally retarded men hunched over holding their penises. I told the woman I preferred paintings without people in them. She talked about human solitude and what Marc Pétit had in common with the men who had painted all the pictures I was looking at.
When we got back outside for some reason I said, "The only reason for art is to take people out of the hum-drum of their everyday lives and to get them to feel the incredible mystery of existence." I surprised myself because I had used the words "art" and "reason for".
The young woman didn’t say anything to my remark. She did say she had studied art history at the university in Corti. We talked. She followed me down to the end of the garden.
I had been there an hour. I said I needed to get back to my family.
We went to dinner that last night in the old town of Ajaccio.
Best pizza I’ve ever had in my life.