Spring break has come to an end and it is time to get back to work. My upcoming quarter is focused a bit more on craft, although I have an art history course that I’m excited about. I promised myself I’d do a little reading over the break, so I revisited a novel I haven’t thought about in many years: ‘Tropic of Cancer,’ by Henry Miller. The book was banned in the US until the 1960’s, but it is considered a seminal work. The style is more akin to Walt Whitman than Fydor Dostoevsky, and that fact, since I love Whitman, makes it wonderful to read. I began the book, again, while I was in New Orleans, which made it all the more special, as silly as it may sound, since New Orleans is the sister city to the great artistic meca, Paris, France. I ripped through the thing. It took me about three days to read, which is a record for my slow reading style.
Henry Miller is considered one of the greatest American authors, which is strange, because I doubt he’d consider himself American, despite the fact he was born in New York. ’Tropic of Cancer’ takes place circa 1930 Paris, where Miller lived for several years on someone else’s dime. In fact, his mistress was being funded by a wealthy American and he tagged along. He was, at least his main character was, always broke and constantly hungry. All he sought out was food and women. That’s a vast oversimplification, but what I’m getting at is he was a true bohemian. So I began to wonder if that artistic, passionate bohemian lifestyle was even possible anymore.
In Paris, during the time of the Impressionists through the beginning of the second world war, an artist could rent a cafe table for a few centimes, work and relax all day long. Fights were common, but never broken up. Getting drunk was expected. Garçons brought pillows for those that passed out. Critiques took place for all that were there. Artistic collaboration was expected. Rooms were shared, and offered. In other words, an artistic community was encouraged. Not so today! And I wonder if that is to our detriment, as a society?
Miller presents to the reader, in ‘Tropic of Cancer,’ a Paris that will never again exist. I am undeniably envious that I can’t see the Paris that Miller lived in, even if I move there and completely retrace his footsteps…even years of doing so wouldn’t give me the same experience. Although I’m not sure I’d even want to. Despite my being years younger than he was when he was in Paris, I’ve already lived out my bohemian existence. But the fact is, even if I wanted to, there is no place in the world I could go that would encourage artistic growth the way 1930’s Paris did. Roughly ninety percent of art students don’t pursue a career in the arts following graduation. Could you imagine the same being true for other professional studies? Medical school or law school, for example.
Being an artist, in the twenty first century, is hard! By and large, no one person cares about your work. Being in art school is a great thing, as it gives you structure, guidance, critical feedback, deadlines and projects. But once art school is over, so is that rigorous schedule. Time to get a day job! I say to hell with that. Art is my day job. It is my career. I know many people who would, and will, laugh at that statement, but if one doesn’t pursue their path, the way Miller did, than forget about it. Go catalog gallery inventory, or ship prints for some housewife, or aid an interior designer, or intern at the High setting up children’s field trips, or do maintenance work for a print lab, or…whatever. Stop thinking in terms of day jobs. Being an artist is hard! But you either are one, or it’s a hobby. Decide.